Find common ground with critics to work out norm for ‘responsibility to protect’ operations

by Ramesh Thakur

Ten years after the formulation of the responsibility-to-protect (R2P) principle as a guide for driving international intervention in a country, it is worth making three points:

• First, as shown in Libya last year, R2P is the norm of choice for galvanizing moral outrage at conscience-shocking atrocities into decisive collective action. R2P repaired a broken United Nations paradigm and created a new policy template that repositions the global consensus between institutionalized indifference to mass killings and unilateral interventions based on the arrogance of power.

Averting our gaze from the Rwanda killings (1994) was an act of collective civic cowardice. Intervention in Kosovo (1998) by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was illegal but legitimate. Together, Rwanda and Kosovo highlighted a triple-policy dilemma of illegality, paralysis and complicity.

Taking military action that is neither in self-defense nor authorized by the U.N. is illegal. Requiring U.N. authorization as a condition of effective action is to give hostages to the collective apathy of the U.N. Security Council or the veto of its permanent members.

Permitting atrocities when we can take action to stop them is to be partly complicit through acts of omission. R2P ingeniously allows us to navigate our way out of this heartbreaking policy “trilemma.”

• Second, the international debate today is not whether R2P applies but how to implement it. In Libya, it was invoked by local, regional and global actors. Even those Security Council members skeptical of military action abstained (Brazil, Germany, India) rather than vote against Resolution 1973. They feared the judgment of history if mass killings did occur.

But NATO’s violations of the limitations and restrictions of Resolution 1973 have given impetus to the search for ways and means by which those undertaking U.N.-authorized military action can themselves be held to international account.

At an all day seminar on R2P in New York on Jan. 18 organized by the Stanley Foundation, it was heartwarming for members of the original international commission being honored for their innovative breakthrough to note the striking depth of consensus on R2P principles among state and U.N. policy actors, civil society advocates and academic analysts.

Yet there was also disquiet among many participants, verging on outright distrust in some, about how far U.N. authorization for the Libyan operation had been stretched beyond the original intent.

This has come back to bite the West with stiff Russian resistance to tough U.N. Security Council action on Syria. There are commercial (arms sales) and geopolitical (loss of credibility as a reliable ally) reasons for Russian reluctance.

The more important explanation is their sense of frustration and humiliation at the open defiance of Security Council limits by NATO in selling arms to the Libyan rebels, targeting Moammar Gadhafi directly, pursuing regime change and intervening in a civil war.

• Third, the debate on how best to operationalize R2P requires a respectful conversation among proponents and skeptics. R2P is not and ought not to be a North-South issue. Many non-Western societies have a historical tradition of reciprocal rights and obligations that bind sovereigns and subjects.

The great Indian Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (269-232 B.C.) proclaimed that “this is my rule: government by the law, administration according to the law, gratification of my subjects under the law, and protection through the law.” By contrast, the theory and practice of sovereignty is decidedly European in origin.

The principal targets of “international” interventions are non-Western countries and the beneficiaries of such action are mainly non-Western peoples. The conversations about R2P’s nature, implementation and limits should therefore involve mostly non-Westerners.

If R2P promotion is dominated by Western faces and voices, it will instill cynicism instead of garnering support from others. Over the last decade, trying to drum and deepen support for R2P, I have become sick of being characterized as the West’s useful idiot (in Lenin’s sense of the term).

Hence my astonishment that the Carnegie Commission would feature a roundtable on R2P in the pages of Ethics and International Affairs last fall with five Western participants.

Each participant is highly capable individually and separately; the collective impact is devastating in shredding political credibility of what is, first, a normative political project and only derivatively an academic discourse.

My horror at the politics of the optics is exceeded only by disbelief at the lack of forethought.

The consensus on R2P resulted from a genuine global dialogue. The world’s comfort level with R2P grew steadily with close scrutiny and recognition that all reasonable concerns had been accommodated.

Had R2P merely reformulated the Western humanitarian warriors’ wishes, it would have been substantially different in content and would not have gained rapid global uptake and traction.

The tweaking from 2001 commission formulation to 2005 unanimous endorsement brought greater clarity, rigor and specificity, limiting the triggering events to war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This is why the U.N. did not invoke R2P during Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 or accept the Russian attempt to dress military intervention in South Ossetia in the language of R2P in 2009.

Three followup reports from Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and sustained advocacy by civil society organizations like the Global Center for R2P and the International Coalition on R2P, have clarified the R2P principles and consolidated the global consensus on it.

Being disdainful and disrespectful of critics — Germany, Brazil, China, India, South Africa, etc. — of how R2P was abused in Libya so that NATO could pursue its own political agenda is counterproductive.

Much better to engage them and find common ground to consolidate the still evolving norm. This requires a response to the gaps in communications and accountability between those who mandate and those who implement R2P operations to build and strengthen shared understandings.

Ramesh Thakur, one of the original R2P commissioners, is a professor of international relations at the Australian National University. This articles draws on his address at a recent conference in New York to mark the 10th anniversary of the commission’s report. His latest book is “The People vs. the State: U.N. Authority, U.S. Power, and the Responsibility to Protect.”