Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Punishing Syria – and the Responsibility to Protect

Much of the determination by the Obama administration and other Western leaders to punish the Assad regime for gassing its own people is probably informed by a controversial doctrine that evolved in the aftermath of the international community's collective shame following its failure to intervene in Rwanda. As the world stood by, as many as a million civilians were brutally slain during the three-month bloodbath in 1994. 

Eight years ago, when this doctrine – known as The Responsibility to Protect, or “R2P” – was on the brink of gaining international acceptance, I wrote the following column in The Aquarian explaining what it is and why I believe it's an important step forward for global justice and security. 

But while R2P might be a motivating factor for those who would intervene militarily in Syria, it's very unclear if America's non UN-sanctioned action would meet the cautious R2P criteria. More to the point, of course, will it help or will it hurt? 

from The Aquarian, Fall 2005
Making Atrocities History
‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine seeks to globalize good Samaritanism

By Syd Baumel

“Never again” we said after the Holocaust. And after the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s. And then again after the Rwanda genocide in 1994. And then, just a year later, after the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. And now we’re asking ourselves, in the face of more mass killing and dying in Darfur, whether we really are capable, as an international community, of stopping nation-states murdering their own people.
Gareth Evans
Co-author, The Responsibility to Protect

We need clear principles that will allow the international community to intervene much faster in situations like Darfur. . . .The “Responsibility to Protect” is intended to fill this gap.
Prime Minister Paul Martin
Address to the UN, September 2004

This September, the United Nations will mark its 60thanniversary with what promises to be the most significant stocktaking and potential turning point in its history. Leaders of the UN’s 191 member states will gather in New York from September 14 to 16 for a high level meeting of the General Assembly dubbed the Millennium + 5 Summit. There, the leaders will confront their lagging progress in meeting the make-poverty-history Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) they declared at the Millennium Summit in 2000 – goals such as halving extreme poverty and hunger, and reducing early childhood mortality by two thirds, by 2015. And they will face a formidable back-to-school assignment to begin reforming an institution that struggles to confront the problems of the 21st century with a toolbox created midway through the last.

But if Canada and a growing number of likeminded nations prevail, the summit could also see the first official endorsement by the community of nations of a new doctrine for making the world a radically safer place – one where never again really means never again.

The simply named doctrine of “The Responsibility to Protect” is a cautious, detailed prescription for extending the age-old virtue of good Samaritanism from the village roadside to the global village. It’s a how-to manual for “we, the peoples of the world (as the UN Charter calls us) to, once and for all, take up the challenge of becoming our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

R2P, as it is abbreviated, is the answer to a challenge put forward by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to the General Assembly at the end of a decade of Rwandas and Bosnias and the beginning of a new millennium: Find a way to reconcile the cloak of state sovereignty with the moral imperative to militarilly breach that cloak in order to stop wayward states from committing atrocities against their own people.

Canada was listening. At the instigation of then Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy, the Chrétien government created the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), a task force of a dozen distinguished experts on international law and conflict. After a year of global consultation, research and deliberation, in December of 2001 the commission published a 91-page report entitled The Responsibility to Protect. Logical, moral and realistic, it more than fulfilled its mission of “reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable notions of intervention and state sovereignty.

Instead of challenging the legitimacy of state sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect challenges sovereign states to embrace a deeper, socially responsible concept of sovereignty. It calls upon them to accept their responsibility to protect the ultimate sovereigns – the people – as the prime obligation of state sovereignty. If a nation fails to fulfill this responsibility so horribly as to “shock the conscience of humanity, other sovereign states must assume that responsibility in its place. It takes a global village to protect all the villagers.

R2P does set off alarm bells in some minds. How to prevent nations from using it as a pretext to occupy, colonize or annex? How to minimize the risk of a well-meaning intervention doing more harm than good? How to prevent one or two self-serving vetoes from blocking a universally approved intervention?

To begin with, R2P attempts to head off such challenges by squarely laying the emphasis on the responsibility to prevent when trouble is merely brewing. Here the tools of intervention are nonviolent means, such as smart sanctions, conflict mediation, referral of human rights violators to the International Criminal Court and helping nations build the kind of civil and economic infrastructure conducive to social justice, peace and prosperity.

When extreme circumstances do provoke “the responsibility to react” militarilly, The Responsibility to Protect seeks to prevent abuses by defining six “threshold criteria to justify intervention:
  • Just cause. Military R2P interventions must be in response to massive, “conscience-shocking” crimes against humanity, such as genocide or violent “ethnic cleansing” or persuasive evidence that such crimes are imminent.
  • Right intention. The primary purpose of the intervention must be to protect innocent life, not to pursue the selfish interests of the interveners.
  • Last resort. All reasonable, nonviolent means of intervention must have been exhausted or not be up to the task of ending the violence.
  • Proportional means. The intervention must apply the least necessary force and the least encroachment upon national sovereignty to achieve its humanitarian goal and prevent a recurrence of atrocities. This last goal is served by the third component of the responsibility to protect: the responsibility to rebuild.
  • Reasonable prospects. The intervention must be reasonably likely to work and unlikely to do more harm than good.
  • Right authority. This is the most challenging hurdle. Ideally, nations seeking authorization for a military R2P intervention should obtain it from the Security Council, with the five permanent members agreeing to waive their vetoes. But if a majority Security Council resolution is vetoed, authority can be sought from the General Assembly under its “Uniting for Peace” provision. Failing that, a “coalition of the willing” can intervene on its own authority, but only if – as in every case – the other threshold criteria are met.
R2P was slow to catch on in the tense, unreasoning climate following  9/11. And after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and later sought to justify it as a humanitarian intervention, R2P suffered guilt by association in the minds of some national leaders. Ironically, the Iraq invasion would have failed R2P’s threshold criteria with flying colours, according to ICISS co-chair and R2P co-author, Gareth Evans. Not so the genocidal ethnic cleansing that began that same winter in the Darfur province of Sudan and continues till this day, a Rwanda in slow motion. R2P would have given the international community an efficient, lawful process to rapidly discharge its responsibility to protect the victims of this state-abetted persecution.

With Darfur weighing heavy on the international conscience, support for R2P has grown over the past year among governments, high level task forces and human rights organizations. Secretary General Kofi Annan has fought from the start to push it to the forefront of the international agenda.

In the build-up to the Millennium + 5 Summit this September, the section of the summit’s evolving outcome document that affirms the basic principles of R2P has also grown stronger with each revision. By August it was even sailing into wish-list territory, invit[ing] the permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from using the veto in cases of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Whether or not The Responsibility to Protect gets a clear thumbs-up at the Summit, confirming it as a contender in the evolving canon of international norms and laws, it's an idea that is here to stay. As public awareness of R2P grows, people who dream of a world where “never again” truly means never again will rally behind this ambitious project to make atrocities history.

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