WATERLOO, Ontario — The 1990s was a decade of conscience-shocking atrocities in Rwanda, the Balkans and East Timor. Unilateral actions by India and Vietnam to end atrocities in the 1970s had drawn international opprobrium and condemnation. The crises of the 1990s provoked agonized soul-searching on how to reconcile a newly energized international conscience with clashing principles of world order that privileged sovereignty over intervention.
The result was the new norm of the “responsibility to protect,” commonly abbreviated as R2P, endorsed unanimously by world leaders in 2005.
Yet many countries remain suspicious of R2P. Opponents — not advocates — sought and organized the debate on the subject held by the U.N. General Assembly last week.
All too often, supporters are trapped into providing ammunition to critics by their failure to pay attention to politics. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s choice of an American special adviser, no matter how good — and Ed Luck is very good indeed — was impolitic. Ban’s own Asian identity is neutralized by the general perception that he was former U.S. Ambassador and U.N.-skeptic John Bolton’s choice for secretary general.
The powerful sense of grievance and resentment is missed by Western academics who read and cite one another to the near total exclusion of colleagues from developing countries.
In his background note for the debate, General Assembly president Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua openly described R2P as “redecorated colonialism.” His advisers organized a pre-debate discussion on the topic among four experts, of whom three were Westerners. This all too easily allows opponents to reinforce dormant fears that R2P is a debate for and by Westerners in which developing countries are the objects, not authors, of policy and of the exercise of Western power.
A more honest effort would have mainly developing country protagonists arguing the case for and against R2P. For the norm is principally about protecting their peoples by collective international means. As argued recently by Mohamed Sahnoun, the other co-chair of the original international commission, in many ways R2P is a distinctly African contribution.
Asia too has its own rich traditions that vest sovereigns with responsibility for the lives and welfare of subjects. At the same time, developing countries, not Western ones, are the likely targets of international military interventions. If they are the principal beneficiaries and victims when R2P is put into practice, they should be the lead debaters. Instead they were asked, by one of their own, to be in the audience. Was this a subconscious deference to racial superiority, a devious but deliberate plot to plant R2P as a Western preoccupation, or an innocent slip?
The debate is also wrongly framed on substance. In the real world, we know there will be more atrocities, victims and perpetrators — and interventions. They were common before R2P and are not guaranteed with R2P. During the debate on July 23, D’Escoto cited the case of Iraq as an example of R2P being abused — seemingly unaware of the irony that it took place more than two years before R2P was adopted. Ed Luck emphasized that R2P seeks to “discourage unilateralism, military adventurism and an over-dependence on military responses to humanitarian need.” Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged that “We should all undertake an honest assessment of our ability to save lives in extraordinary situations,” like Rwanda in 1994. It was good to have the likes of Nigeria, South Africa and Japan speak in support of R2P.
The real choice is when, why, how and by whom. Three choices will have to be made:
• First, are interventions to be unilateral or multilateral?
Clearly, the comfort level for all developing countries and most Westerners is much greater with U.N.-authorized interventions rather than those led by self-appointed sheriffs and their deputies. The rancor and recriminations of NATO’s unauthorized intervention in Kosovo were in marked contrast to the impressive unity of the U.N. community in East Timor in 1999.
• Second, will the interventions be rules-based or ad hoc?
Safety and protection for the poor, weak and vulnerable countries is better provided when principles and guidelines on when and how interventions are to be conducted have been agreed to in advance and are commonly understood.
Alternatively, the absence of rules gives much greater freedom of action to the global and regional hegemons to act (or not) when, where and how they please.
• Third, will the interventions promote bitter divisions or cement consensus on the normative underpinnings of world order and stability?
Unilateral and ad hoc interventions will sow and nourish the seeds of international discord. Multilateral and rules-based interventions will speak powerfully to the world’s determination never again to return to institutionalized indifference to mass atrocities.
That is the true promise and potential of R2P, to convert a shocked human conscience into timely and decisive action to halt and prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
Ramesh Thakur, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, and a former U.N. assistant secretary general, was a commissioner for the original 2001 U.N. report titled “The Responsibility to Protect.”