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POLITICS: How Far Should U.N. Go to Protect Civilians?

Henry Parr

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 24 2009 (IPS) - In what one U.N. official characterised as “a historical development”, the General Assembly spent much of this week debating the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which calls for the international community to intervene with diplomatic and, if necessary, military action, in cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California, speaks to the press on R2P. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California, speaks to the press on R2P. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Earlier this week, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon presented a report offering a concrete structure for the implementation of R2P, which has proved politically contentious in the four years since its introduction.

Ban introduced the report, entitled “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect”, to the General Assembly saying, “We can save lives. We can uphold the principles on which this house is built. We can demonstrate that sovereignty and responsibility are mutually reinforcing principles, and we can assert the moral authority of this institution.”

The report’s strategy is based on three “pillars” – the responsibility of states to protect their own populations, the responsibility of the international community to assist nations dealing with these crimes, and the responsibility of the international community to respond, potentially intervening against the will of states.

While the principle was unanimously accepted and agreed upon by the member states of the U.N. at the 2005 World Summit, it has since become a controversial issue. Concerns have been raised as to the preservation of state sovereignty and the potential misuse of the principle.

Ban acknowledged this, saying, “I see signs of convergence on the first two pillars of my strategy on state responsibility and international assistance. But, as everyone expected, differences persist on some aspects of the third pillar – on response.”

The secretary-general also addressed the likelihood that the debate could move away from the implementation of R2P and towards the validity of the already accepted principle.

He asked member states to “resist those who try to change the subject or turn our common effort to curb the worst atrocities in human history into a struggle over ideology, geography or economics.”

This could be an allusion to the General Assembly president, Miguel D’Escoto, who has stated that he has “strong views” when it comes to the principle. D’Escoto also assembled a panel of four experts to address the General Assembly before the debate, three of whom were characterised by Jim Traub of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, as presenting a “broad polemical critique”.

The panel was made up of well-known leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky; Belgian academic Jean Bricmont; Gareth Evans, former president of the International Crisis Group; and Kenyan author and professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o, all of whom, with the exception of Evans, were critical of the principle and it’s implementation.

Chomsky and Bricmont in particular, suggested that the force driving R2P, humanitarian intervention, could be tied to colonialist ventures and inequality in international affairs.

Chomsky began by stating, “The discussions about R2P, or it’s cousin, humanitarian aid, are regularly disturbed by a skeleton in the closet, history” He then listed imperialist genocides committed under the guise of humanitarian aid throughout history, dating back to the 17th century.

Bricmont stated that, “The main obstacle to the implementation of a genuine and acceptable R2P, are precisely the policies and the attitudes of the countries that are most enthusiastic for R2P, namely the western countries and in particular the United States.”

Both Chomsky and Bricmont, however, received criticism from a number of delegates, most notably the ambassador of Germany who, in response to Chomsky said, “You have enumerated a long list of examples about the cousin and about the skeleton, we have heard not heard anything about R2P as it is clearly defined in the report.”

Supporters of the principle have argued that R2P is not a western norm, but rather one that originated in Africa.

As Thelma Ekyior, the executive director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute, mentioned in a press briefing on Wednesday, “Prior to the 2005 World Summit here at the U.N., African governments were already thinking about how to address the atrocities [of Rwanda]”.

Ekyior cited the African Union’s Constitutive Act of 2000 which “uses R2P language” and the 2008 Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Conflict Prevention Framework which “uses R2P lingo verbatim, in talking about the responsibility to prevent, to react, and to rebuild”.

On Thursday, the formal debates began with the juxtaposition of the European Union’s (EU) beaming support of the secretary-general’s report with the Non-Aligned Movement’s tentative concerns.

Representing the EU was Sweden’s Anders Linden who spoke confidently about the secretary-general’s proposal, saying the report “brings the concept down to the level of practical implications and forms a platform on which to build concrete measures”.

Also among the proponents of the report were a number of South American and Asian countries, notably Chile and Indonesia.

Ambassador Maged A. Abdelaziz of Egypt however, expressed the Non-Aligned Movement’s uncertainty over the implementation of R2P stating, “In the meantime, mixed feelings and thoughts on implementing R2P still persist. There are concerns about the possible abuse of R2P.”

Abdelaziz also expressed the Non-Aligned Movement’s concern for the Security Council’s frequent inability to act due to disagreement among its five veto-wielding members, particularly “instances wherein the Security Council fails to address cases involving genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.”

So far, it’s unclear what the actual outcome of the debate will be. However, supporters of R2P appear to be confident that any discussion regarding the principle’s implementation is positive.

Traub told IPS that he found the first day of debates “very encouraging” and believed that “the feeling is that it’s not necessary to have a specific outcome… the outcome is these counties standing up and saying ‘we need to do something’.”

The secretary general and supporters of R2P consistently cite the genocide in Rwanda as an example where the international community should have responded but did not in the name of state sovereignty. Gareth Evans said that it was “Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Kosovo” which pushed the international community towards accepting R2P in 2005.

In his remarks to the General Assembly, Lord Mark Malloch Brown, Britain’s minister of the state for Africa, Asia, and the United Nations, said that what he hoped would emerge from the debates was “a culture of prevention”.

Regardless of what cultural change may occur, ultimately, it will be the future actions of the international community that will determine whether or not it has learnt from the past.

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