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Thesis & Antithesis

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

16 September 2005

Responsibility to protect

Of the ideas that will be discussed in the next few days in the United Nations, one stands out: the UN is likely to endorse (in a declaration) the principle of the “responsibility to protect,” an idea which has been brewing for a while and which pledges the world “to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (1).

The immediate reaction is twofold—on one hand, such a declaration is welcome, particularly as it codifies the growing sense that sovereignty is not an absolute good that can shield homicidal governments from foreign scrutiny and military intervention. On the other, there is hardly an expectation that such a declaration will mean much—after all, the UN has adopted a convention on the prevention of genocide that will soon celebrate its sixtieth birthday; but declarations don’t stop brutal regimes, force does, and countries will continue to intervene based on what they perceive their interests to be, not what UN declarations dictate.

There is another hope: that this acknowledgment will shame countries to act by establishing a new norm in international law. Again, this might be an exaggerated hope: remember that in February 2005, the United States confirmed its belief that the events in Darfur constituted genocide even though the UN fell short of attaching that label. No matter. No serious efforts have been made to pacify Darfur. While the telegenic absurdities of the Rwandan genocide have been avoided (when the US kept talking of “acts of genocide” to avoid using the word genocide), the international reaction has been equally muted as it was ten years ago in Rwanda.

There is one final risk to bear in mind: the prospect that this “responsibility to protect” will be hijacked to the point where it becomes meaningless. This can happen in either of two ways—the first will be an over-sensitized interpretation of its applicability: in other words, when people “cry wolf” all too easily thus diluting the true meaning of the idea. This could also lead to premature unilateral action from countries that are eager to resolve a conflict in their neighborhood. The second is that UN member states may twist resolutions to form exceptions to the “responsibility to protect.” This could either mean a stiff resistance by countries who will try to put up excuses (counter-terrorism, maintaining internal order, etc) to evade punishment.

Either way, it is too soon to tell how important this “responsibility to protect” will be in the long run. Most likely, it will add to a pile of documents that make for good reading in international law, but marginal reading in international politics.

(1) Mark Turner, “UN ‘must never again be found wanting on genocide,” Financial Times, 16 September 2005


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