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A UN doctrine of pre-emption?

By Daniel Flitton - posted Wednesday, 21 September 2005

Mercurial US diplomat John Bolton has already created a stir in New York. After only a few weeks in the job as American ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton is busy preparing the US response to what promises to be a landmark meeting of the General Assembly this week. And while this high-level summit takes place against the background of the oil-for-food scandal, the agenda is packed with many other pressing concerns.

One issue in particular has caught Bolton's attention - the effort to find a means of enforcing international respect for human rights standards.

This idea consumed much of the world's interest throughout the 1990s, thanks to the bloody experience of Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor among other terrible examples. Slowly, a momentum built towards recognition of a new standard in international relations, the idea that governments had a ''responsibility to protect'' people suffering in a grave humanitarian emergency.


This challenged the traditional belief that a country's moral responsibility finished at the water's edge - or at the political lines drawn on a map. ''Sovereignty in our view is not absolute,'' once explained Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer. ''Acting for the benefit of humanity is more important.''

After the events of September 11, 2001, the ''war on terror'' quickly became the foremost international concern. Looking after homeland security was more important than the luxury of protecting people in other countries. The debate over establishing a responsibility to protect drifted towards irrelevance.

But the Darfur emergency in Sudan and the terrible knowledge of likely future crises has allowed supporters of the responsibility to protect to quietly advance their hopes.

One of the strongest enthusiasts is embattled UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In his most recent annual report, he again urges world leaders to protect the world's vulnerable masses from misery and abuse. ''It cannot be right,'' he says, ''when the international community is faced with genocide or massive human rights abuses, for the United Nations to stand by and let them unfold to the end, with disastrous consequences for many thousands of innocent people''.

Diplomatic and other peaceful measures are the appropriate first response to a humanitarian crisis, writes an impassioned Annan. But when national authorities refuse to co-operate, the responsibility to protect falls on the international community, using force to stop the suffering if necessary.

As expected, America's new representative in the UN is focused on advancing US foreign policy. Bolton recognises that accepting the notion of a responsibility to protect will impose particular expectations on America, the world's pre-eminent military power.


Its response to the Asian tsunami demonstrated that no other country has the ability to act so quickly in response to a natural disaster almost anywhere in the world (except, as has become painfully obvious, in Louisiana or Mississippi).

This is also true of reacting to man-made crises. In a recent letter circulated at UN headquarters, Bolton outlines the US position. He accepts that the international community has a role to play in cases involving crimes against humanity. He also makes clear that America stands ready to take collective action to protect populations from large-scale atrocities.

Yet Bolton also carries Washington's traditional scepticism about entangling alliances. He rejects any legal construction of an international ''obligation'' to intervene. ''What the United Nations does in a particular situation should depend on the specific circumstances,'' he says. Instead of requiring a narrow pre-determined reaction, the Security Council should be free to make a case-by-case judgment.

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First published in The Canberra Times on September 15, 2005.

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About the Author

Daniel Flitton is a Visiting Research Associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and works at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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