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Whose Responsibility is the Responsibility to Protect?
The idea that national sovereignty is a responsibility not a right, is the controversial notion at the heart of the emerging international norm of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). This notion declares that states have a responsibility to protect their populations from mass atrocities. If states are either unable or unwilling to do so then responsibility is taken up by the international community to protect the populations in danger. This essay will discuss why the United Nations (UN) bears most, but not all, of the responsibility for R2P.
Specifically, when the UN fails to act to prevent genocide then responsibility transitions to the United States and regional powers.
Through a collective and diverse range of responsibilities there is a better guarantee that populations in danger are ultimately protected. In relation to this argument, this essay will discuss and analyse three key components; firstly, what the ‘responsibility to protect’ is and what common misconceptions exist; secondly, how the UN is the best international organization to bear responsibility for R2P but how it often fails to stop genocide; and finally, how the United States and regional powers bear responsibility for R2P when the UN fails to uphold its responsibility.
Before any analysis concerning who harbours ultimate responsibility for the international norm of R2P is contemplated, it is vital to understand how this notion became such a prominent feature of the international system and just what it truly incorporates. Unquestionably, the calamitous developments in Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Bosnia in the 1990’s began to systematically reshape notions of state sovereignty and intervention.
The preceding, and unpopular, sentiment of a “right to intervene” was dismantled and reformed.1 The new approach, which was introduced by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in a report late in 2001, was one titled “the responsibility to protect”.
The notion was formally supported by the UN General Assembly at the World Summit in 2005.2 The salient components of the ICISS report managed to survive within the content of the Outcome Document at the World Summit. The nucleus of the Outcome Document conveys that individual states have the responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing ,and crimes against humanity. In addition, it declares that the international community ought to embolden states to exercise this responsibility. It then extends to say that the international community, through the UN, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means in order to help protect populations against such atrocious outcomes.
If crimes against humanity are imminent, then collective action would be contemplated by the Security Council on a case by case basis and would involve cooperation with the relevant regional organizations and governments. All of which would only be considered if peaceful means are insufficient and national authorities are evidently failing to protect their populations from such atrocities.3 However, since 2005 there has been a fair share of scepticism toward the idea. Countries in Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab-Islamic region have all exhibited apprehension toward the norm, specifically claiming that R2P is nothing more than a Trojan Horse for the old imperial and colonial powers.4 In fact, Venezuela’s president of the time, Hugo Chavez, stressed that the R2P notion would essentially serve the interests of the powerful by making it easier to intervene inside less-powerful countries.5 Reactions similar to Chavez’s have spawned an array of misconceptions about R2P throughout the world. The dominant misconception is that R2P is simply another name for the failed idea of humanitarian intervention.
Though, clearly there are crucial differences. At the very core of humanitarian intervention was the idea of coercive military intervention for humanitarian purposes. However, R2P aims to take effective action at the earliest possible stage in order to stop genocide before it materializes, or spreads, by helping countries help themselves through international political, economic and social support.6 Another popular fallacy of R2P has been that in all extreme cases R2P intends to use coercive military force. Certainly, it is necessary for a case to be extreme for military action to be considered but it is not sufficient to conclude that force should then be employed. Indeed, R2P acknowledges that the norms of ‘just war theory’ must be met before a military intervention is engaged, namely: a proper intention, last resort, proportionality and balance of consequences. A key example of the application of this criteria is the ongoing conflict in Darfur.
Evidently, the extremity threshold has been reached in Darfur but a military intervention has not been proposed because such an action would likely breach the latter two norms of just war theory, that of proportionality and balance of consequences.7 Now that these popular misconceptions about R2P have been unmasked it is crucial to acknowledge whose responsibility is the R2P. Within this initial discussion it seems glaringly self-evident that the UN, through the Security Council, holds ultimate responsibility for the R2P doctrine. However, when it comes to the real world application of the R2P this self-evident impression becomes less convincing.
Clearly, R2P was destined to be a responsibility of an international organization when it was first constructed by the ICISS. And there does not exist a better international organization than the UN to debate and respond to global R2P crises. Indeed, the UN has a successful and reputable record for the aspects of R2P that surround prevention and rebuilding for countries at risk utilizing strategies of development, aid and diplomacy. However, when doubt is expressed about the UN it is primarily about its ability to forcibly stop acts of genocide.8 Regrettably, the UN on numerous occasions has failed to prevent and stop mass humanitarian atrocities. This has been particularly true because the UN system simply has no effective capacity to undertake full-scale war campaigns to respond to, mitigate or prevent genocide. When the Security Council has authorized military action, it has been primarily through specially formed coalitions of the willing without direct UN connections.
This displays a crucial flaw in the UN system itself. The fact that it holds the legitimate authority to act but not the power, is perplexing. And when it comes to preventing or mitigating rapid genocide, such as the 800,000 butchered in Rwanda in the space of 3 months, rapid military response is crucial. This notion was emphasized in a resonating article by Sir Brian Urquhart in 1993 who petitioned the UN to institute a 5,000 strong infantry volunteer force, under the direction of the Security Council. Such a force would be able to effectively and forcibly intervene to nullify violence at an early stage in low-level but precarious conflicts. Following the Rwandan genocide, General Romeo Dallaire declared that having a capable force of around 5,000 rapidly available to him could have stopped, or at least mitigated, the genocide.9 With Rwanda in mind, there does not seem to be any logistical argument for why the UN has not instituted a rapid reaction capability of its own. Yet, political resistance to such a proposition has been widespread throughout the UN.
10 Although some of this resistance is valid, there is still a willingness to disregard and ignore the lessons that ought to have been learnt from the Rwandan genocide. Still, the fundamental reason for why the UN has failed repeatedly has been because of the disagreement within the Security Council. Russia and China have time and again exercised their veto powers to halt any international intervention on humanitarian grounds. Normally they have defended their actions with absolute and unconditional support for state sovereignty, which runs contrary to the notion of R2P. Despite its failings and internal problems, the UN remains the only valid international organization with the necessary attributes of legitimacy and authority that are required to carry out the R2P initiative.11 However, as discussed above, the UN often fails to react to mass acts of atrocity. And thus, it is this failure that dissolves a proportion of their R2P responsibility.
If, say, a ‘coalition of the willing’ had been prepared to intervene in Rwanda but they had not been authorized through the Security Council, should the coalition have intervened.12 When the UN fails to intervene, or fails to give authority for a coalition of the willing to intervene, do other governments and regional powers hold any responsibility for allowing genocide to take place. Do we simply place unconditional responsibility and faith in the UN and its Security Council to prevent such hideous outcomes. The shameful passivity that the international community displayed in 1994 led to one of the worst genocides since the Holocaust. Yet, the United Nations is still unwilling to address any of the structural and institutional problems that led to the inaction of 1994. There is no doubt that responsibility lays flat on the shoulders of the United Nations for R2P situations, but when they fail to act then that responsibility ought to transition to the United States and regional powers, following the criteria of just war theory.
13 Unmistakably, the UN holds international authority but lacks real power, while the United States holds real power but lacks international authority.14 Accordingly, debates and disputes about international military intervention tend to be about American intervention. There is little doubting the strength, capability and resources that the United States possesses. American military intervention often follows a strict strategic national interest, but this interest can coincide with humanitarian interests also. Generally, the United States respects the authority of the UN to make crucial decisions about pressing humanitarian situations.
But when the UN fails to organize and act, the United States has been eager to live up to its responsibility as the preponderant power of the world to stop and prevent genocide. The intervention in Kosovo showcases a crucial historical example where the UN failed to act swiftly and diligently in order to prevent mass atrocity crimes and where the United States and NATO took on the responsibility, albeit illegally, to prevent the spreading of genocide. In 1998, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic launched attacks on ethnic Albanian civilians as part of a campaign against the Kosovo Liberation Army. The Security Council countered the atrocities with Resolution 1199. The Security Council undertook provisional measures that insisted each party terminate the violence and commence peaceable discussions. Following such measures, Milosevic progressed his attacks on civilians. Thus, it became clear that stronger and forceful measures would be required to put an end to the atrocities. Ultimately though, the Security Council failed to authorize further coercive measures to prevent Milosevic from massacring civilians.
15 Following various failed diplomatic attempts, NATO conducted Operation Allied Force which was a 77 day air-strike campaign that ultimately ended the conflict in Kosovo. All 19 NATO member states contributed to the effort and it eventually finished with Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo.16 Milosevic was subsequently indicted by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for crimes against humanity. As history shines its light on the actions taken in Kosovo, it seems clear that the United States and its NATO allies prevented further acts of genocide. This example is a clear-cut case of how the United States is able to prevent acts of genocide when the UN fails to do so.
The Kosovo case greatly underscores the real need for a back-up strategy in responding to genocide when the UN is dead-locked.17 The UN’s habitual failure to respond is why it is paramount, not just for the sake of the survival of an international norm (R2P) but for real life innocent human beings, that the world’s super-power along with regional powers are able and willing to prevent acts of genocide in limited military operations. Since the United States cannot be strenuously expected to intervene in every R2P situation, there ought to be another protective layer for the prevention of genocide. This protective layer can be guaranteed by regional powers who desire to maintain their responsibility and commitment to their region of the world to prevent acts of human atrocity.
Like the US responsibility, regional powers should initially seek to gain Security Council authorization but if the UN fails to grant it then they should not feel constrained to act. A great example of a limited regional military intervention was the Australian intervention in East Timor which stopped the savaging of East Timor’s population by militias conspiring with the Indonesian military.18 Although this case did indeed enjoy Security Council authorization, would it not have been legitimate if Security Council authorization was not granted. Without doubt, New Zealand would feel a compelling sense of shame if genocide was occurring within a pacific island nation and we, along with our regional allies such as Australia, failed to intervene and stop it due to a technicality within the United Nations. Admittedly, any use of force without Security Council authorization is a potentially dangerous ploy as it may encourage militarily powerful states to violate weaker state’s sovereignty.19 Though, like any tough decision there are trade-offs; therefore, it all depends if one thinks the prevention of genocide is ultimately more important than unconditional state sovereignty. And there now exists a strong movement in the international system, embodied by the R2P doctrine, toward constructing the prohibition of mass atrocity as a stronger international norm than unconditional state sovereignty.
Furthermore, as Rwanda, Kosovo and now Syria demonstrate, the Security Council will not always act to prevent genocide and mass killing, either in a prompt and forceful way, or at all.20 When this is the case, responsibility for R2P should be transitioned to the United States and regional powers with respect for the norms of just war.21 In sum, the best and most appropriate organization to bear most of the responsibility for R2P is clearly the UN. The UN has proven successful in its capacity to help prevent mass atrocities through diplomacy and development which represents the heart of the R2P. However, the UN has not proven comprehensively capable of reacting to, and stopping, acts of genocide and mass human rights violations through military means. Therefore, initial responsibility for international intervention for genocide prevention is the UN’s and its Security Council. However, when the UN fails to act, then, and only then, responsibility transitions to the United States and regional powers in order to protect the R2P norm and save innocent lives.
In conclusion, this essay has argued that the majority of the responsibility for R2P is the UN’s. However, when the UN fails to act to prevent genocide then that responsibility directly transitions to the United States and regional powers. This way, there can be a better guarantee that: firstly, the R2P initiative survives; and secondly that, genocide will remain part of history rather than a re-occurring tragedy. In relation to this argument, this essay has discussed and analysed three key components; firstly, what the R2P norm is and what common misconceptions exist; secondly, how the UN is the best international organization to bear responsibility for R2P but how it often fails to stop genocide; and finally, how the United States and regional powers bear responsibility for R2P when the UN fails to uphold its responsibility.
Word Count: 2,500.
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Responsibility to Protect and the Syria Crisis’, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 45., No. 1., 2012.
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