Saviors or conquerors? UN mulls “responsibility to protect”

July 24, 2009

By Patrick Worsnip
What’s more important — the right of a sovereign state to manage its affairs free of outside interference or the duty of the international community to intervene when massive human rights violations are being committed in a country?
The United Nations — nothing if not a talking shop — has been debating that question this week in the General Assembly. It goes to the heart of what the U.N. is all about.
At issue is a declaration issued four years ago by a summit of more than 150 world leaders asserting the “responsibility to protect” — R2P in U.N. jargon — populations threatened with genocide or other mass atrocities. It was a somewhat belated response to widespread criticism of the United Nations for failing to stop massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s.
The carefully crafted declaration said the responsibility began with the government of the country concerned. If that failed, it foresaw a sliding scale of international action, ranging from advice through mediation to — in a last resort — intervention by force. And such a use of force could only be authorized by the Security Council, meaning the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China would all have to agree.
Cautious as it was, the summit document was seen by many advocacy groups as a step on the road to fulfilling their dream that if a government was committing atrocities against its people, the United Nations would march in and stop it.
In the real world, U.N. officials say, that is not going to happen, at least under the peacekeeping rules that have applied in recent decades. These do not authorize U.N. forces to go to war against the national army of a sovereign state — a move that would amount to invasion. Witness the six-year-old conflict in Sudan’s western region of Darfur — branded by some as genocide — where a U.N./African Union peacekeeping force is only now being slowly deployed with the consent of the Khartoum government. The only time that R2P has been invoked in practice — and even then retrospectively — was in former U.N. secretary-General Kofi Annan’s mission to mediate in post-election violence in Kenya last year, U.N. officials say.
This week’s debate was to take stock of R2P and discuss how to take it forward, although no immediate action is expected. It came against the background of a determined attempt by radicals led by General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto, a former Nicaraguan Sandinista government minister, to kick the issue into the long grass.

For D’Escoto and those who agree with him, R2P is code for an attempt by big Western powers to impose their will on the weak. In a contentious “concept note” issued to all U.N. members he declared that “colonialism and interventionism used ‘responsibility to protect’ arguments.” One member of a panel of experts D’Escoto convened to launch the debate, U.S. academic Noam Chomsky, said R2P-type arguments had been used to justify Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria and Nazi Germany’s pre-World War Two move into Czechoslovakia.
While some radical states, such as Venezuela, echoed D’Escoto’s line in the assembly debate, human rights groups expressed relief that most cautiously supported a strictly defined interpretation of R2P and backed proposals by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for developing it. Ban has proposed periodic reviews of how countries have implemented R2P and regular reports by himself on the issue. “To those that argued this week that the U.N. was not ready to make a reality of the commitment to end mass atrocities, the majority of the General Assembly gave its answer: you are wrong,” said Monica  Serrano of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Despite that, there have been clear signs of concern among developing countries that unless tightly controlled, R2P could be used in support of future Iraq-style invasions of countries that have angered the big powers.
What’s your view?


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Is anybody concerned with the (historycally) recent UN SC UN-authorized wars, invasions and bombings?

Posted by nasudr | Report as abusive

This is a very interesting article concerning that which D’Escoto and those who agree with him, believe, that the large western powers to not have rights to interfere with other countries affairs if they displease, is this really a bad thing? The US, as the planets only superpower, a rarely held position, has certain unalienable rights to do whatever they wish, to whoever they wish,however they wish, whether it be an invasion, sanctions, etc. this is why the US is called a superpower we are the only ones who can do this.

Posted by James Wacenske | Report as abusive

Louis,Can R2P prevent Super-Powers from abusing their power?- Could it stop American’s from bombing Iraqi’s?- Could it prevent Chinese ethnic cleansing of Uighur’s & Tibetan’s?- Could it force Israeli’s out of Palestine?- Could it stop Russia from brutalizing the Georgian’s?The obvious answer is “NO!”.Because these are all NUCLEAR-ARMED nations, with menacing LARGE ARMIES, & incredible WEALTH.Super-Powers can enforce R2P.Developing nations cannot.This means R2P is a JOKE.A law that applies to the weak, but not the strong.

Posted by Paul Escobar | Report as abusive

The opponents of R2P seem to forget that the doctrine is an escalating one, i.e. military intervention is only used as a last resort. Prior to that UN agencies could be helpful to a country. Intervention has to be authorized by the Security Council. Without the effective adoption of R2P, the world will continue to witness, but not help to prevent, genocides such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia. Without R2P, countries will bear the expense of the aftermath of such genocides not to mention the guilt of having done nothing to prevent them.

Posted by elizabeth barad | Report as abusive

In Africa where national institutions are weak and feeble to protect the ordinary citizens against the state, where the regional bodies and the continental body, the AU, are all equally weak then the UN is the people’s last and only hope. Sadly the UN has repeatedly failed those who needed its protection the most, R2P or no R2P.

Posted by Wilbert Mukori | Report as abusive

The UN can neither be a savour or a conqueror.It can never act. It can only react. Because it is controlled and blocked by the very nations who deserve it’s interference.What did the UN do about the African genocides? Nothing. Because a third of the UN are African nations. And we don’t want to upset them, do we?What did the UN do about Yugoslavia? Or Cambodia? Or Tibet? Had America not helped Kuwait during the Gulf War, what would the UN have done? Would it have done anything at all?Can the UN stop Hizbulla from stealing the corpses of soldiers? Can it stop Hamas from launching missiles? Can it stop the Taliban from kidnapping and executing teachers? Can it stop the LTTE from blowing up civilians? No. It can do absolutely nothing.Are the UN in Afganistan or Iraq? What did they do when Russia annexed parts of Georgia? If Iran makes a nuke, will the UN apologise to America for allowing it to happen?The longer these events carry on, it becomes apparent that the UN General Assembly are getting worried. The very same inaction which allowed these tinpot nations to do as they pleased, is now quickly becoming their noose. Because the large nations have had enough.The events of the last ten years are clear. It is the place for the great powers and superpowers to act and make history. It is the place for the small nations to be acted upon and to be history.And it is the place of the UN to sit there, impotent and immobile, as it dully reacts to the actions of those with power.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

This is a like an impotent man deciding if he’ll have sex or not. Why is the UN even talking this way? They are limp.

Posted by Gerhardt Gast | Report as abusive

Is it not the responsibility of any government to provide security and certain rights to all of its people, namely the right to live without fear of death at the hands of their leader? If these rights are not guaranteed, should nothing be done to stop it?No IGO or NGO in the history of the world has had the teeth to practice R2P strategy, yet there are exponentially more NGOs and IGOs than even 15 years ago, some with as much or more power as a small state government in the international system.The death of the Westphalian system will be at the hands of institutions such as the UN and EU, its role has yet to be shaped but R2P is a good first try. Everyone seems to be complaining about the UN having no power, but it only has as much as we give it.

Posted by Tim | Report as abusive

I think that a lot of the arguments against Responsibility to Protect are certainly valid. While I ultimately believe that the Responsibility to Protect is necessary, I also believe the arguments against R2P are substantial because it is apparent that R2P’s flaws inhibit it from functioning as it was intended to.However, if for a few minutes we put aside these issues of colonialism and ethnocentrism what is at the heart of Responsibility to Protect is the whole idea of “responsibility”. If we refer back to the social contract that is theoretically meant to exist between the government and its people the whole purpose of the government is to work for its people- to provide them with reasonable rule of law, social services, and protection. When a government not only fails to provide necessary services for its people, but succeeds in murdering its people with clear intent, I think that government has apparently broken its social contract and therefore abandoned its right to sovereignty.When somewhere around 800,000 people die in 100 days and multiple societies are destroyed, and still being destroyed (because the suffering in the Congo is directly related to the conflict in Rwanda), one must ask themselves, “Was sovereignty so important in 1994 for Rwanda?” And ultimately, what does sovereignty matter when there aren’t people left to enjoy it?A point was made that the world’s super-powers (and I say super-powers because I think the United States suffered a substantial loss of soft-power under George W. Bush and is no longer the super-power we believe ourselves to be) have the wealth and arms to do what they want when they want. That’s true. But as corny as it obviously is, taken from “Spiderman”: With great power comes great responsibility. No, I don’t believe that all countries should be as the western world is because every country in the western world is not without its flaws and we could learn a thing or two from the developing world. And no, I do not believe that R2P should always lead to force. As a commentator mentioned earlier, its about escalation using armed force as a last result. But if a country has the power to end the suffering of innocents, what good reason is there not to? What’s more is, if a lot of countries have the power to work together to end the suffering of innocents in one country, what good reason is there not to?As an Africana Studies student, I understand the devastation that colonization has done to the developing world. Thus, I understand developing countries’ reservations against R2P, but this is not the colonial-era anymore. Developing countries are at the table and I believe them to have more power than they believe themselves to have. They have the power to help stop atrocities too; therefore, they have the power to help shape the Responsibility to Protect.

Posted by Jillian Nowlin | Report as abusive

The United Nations undoubtedly have a responsibility to protect every induvidual and or people from conceived attrocities by more powerful and unconscionable persons. That such powerful persons constitute the goverment of the state or nations of such victims of attrocities should not deny them (the victims) of such protection. Any national goverment that can turn against its own people cannot have the mandate of such people and is therefore a goverment by stealth. Condoning such goverments or their actions is to recomend armed conflicts and wars as a legitimate means of state existence. That will actually amount to perpetuating the scourge of war which the United Nations is set to eradicate.To use the concept of state sovereingty to ignore or condone such goverments or their lethal actions is to abuse the concept of State Sovereingty. State belongs to the people not to to unconscionable and powerful few, whose only claim to power is gotten from their unscopulous quest for power.D’Escoto’s appeal to colonialism and interventionism is a mere attempt to confuse the true concept of R2P. R2P is a welcome development. The United Nations should develop means of making it prompt and effective.

Posted by JOSEPH EKENE NDIBUAGU | Report as abusive

Is it not evident that the whole United Nations agenda is to act as a battering ram to test the boundaries of all sovereign nations? The UN is a governing body named in the present tense–it is an inside joke, and free nations are the target.

Posted by B | Report as abusive

Even more upsetting than leaders or governments persecuting their own citizens, is watching those with the ability to stop the injustice do absolutely nothing. In this day and age there should be no such thing as “a casualty of war”. We are not animals, to turn to violence to achieve our goals. At the end of the day, that is what war is about, using force to achieve your objectives. Example, Zimbabwe: the UN or whoever, should have stepped in and prevented anyone from using violence to win a bloody election!

Posted by Jimmy SA | Report as abusive

The danger of R2P comes in the ability to abuse the clauses therein for one’s national gain. Considering not only history, but also current events, related concerns are valid. Perhaps the most compelling argument against its structure (for me at least) is that by giving the Security Counsil the sole vote to engage in military action, you’ve effectively made the members ‘above the law’. What provisions do we have against the members of the Security Counsil?As a side note- for those who believe that a superpower can do whatever it likes is seriously misguided. How many additional wars could the US feasibily engage in today? None. It’s financially out of reach.

Posted by A | Report as abusive

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