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Crisis and response - part one

By Ramesh Thakur - posted Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, endorsed by world leaders at the United Nations in 2005, is a call to action - not the opening lines of a Socratic dialogue by diplomats. Its origins lie in our collective failure to prevent or halt mass killings and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, the Balkans and East Timor in the 1990s.

The goal of the innovative formulation by the Canadian-sponsored but independent international commission was to increase the chances that in future, such calls to action to protect populations at risk of atrocity crimes would be answered: rapidly, effectively and properly. To that end, we restricted the circumstances under which R2P would apply, setting the bar for military intervention very high, and outlined tight political and operational safeguards against its abuse.

The mix of recent cases of inter-group armed violence and untended victims of natural disasters confirms the need for R2P, the risks of straying too widely from it and the difficulties of activating it even when warranted.


The death toll from Cyclone Nargis could surpass 100,000. The numbers of displaced, homeless, in desperate need of immediate humanitarian relief, is as high as two million. The military junta balked at opening Burma’s borders to supplies of international humanitarian aid and skilled humanitarian relief personnel. Reflecting his humanitarian background, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested that the Security Council should invoke R2P.

At first blush, this is a strange call. R2P’s provenance is protecting at-risk populations from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Broadening it to cover contingencies like nuclear proliferation, environmental vandalism, HIV-AIDS and natural disasters may have the perverse effect of weakening support for R2P when we face the next Rwanda tomorrow - without materially helping the needy today.

In our original report, we identified “overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope, and significant loss of life is occurring or threatened” as among the conscience-shocking situations justifying international intervention. This was not included in the 2005 UN document, but “crimes against humanity” was and would provide the necessary legal cover to sidestep the recalcitrant generals and give help directly to the afflicted people.

While the legal case is powerful, the politics against it are compelling, which explains why it was dropped in 2005. Unless the Western powers want another war in the jungles of South-East Asia, a war of relief delivery that will quickly turn into one of national liberation against foreign occupiers, it is better not to speak this language at all.

John Holmes, the top UN humanitarian official and a former British ambassador to France, described Kouchner’s call as unnecessarily confrontational. The British cabinet minister for international development, Douglas Alexander, rejected it as incendiary. Britain’s UN ambassador, John Sawers, said R2P did not apply to natural disasters.

Invoking R2P will make the generals, who are beyond shame, dig in their heels even more firmly. It will antagonise the South-East Asian countries, whose political support is vital to communicating with the generals and persuading them to open up. It will alienate China, India and Japan, the three big Asian powers whose backing is essential for delivering any meaningful relief in Burma. It will prove divisive within the UN, reintroducing the North-South polarisation over “humanitarian intervention” that the R2P formula transcended.


Faced with firming opposition at all these levels, will the Western powers, already overstretched militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, and increasingly despised around the world for belligerent machismo as their default mode of engagement with regimes that don’t kowtow to them, be prepared to use military force? If not, they will damage their own political credibility and that of R2P by invoking it ineffectually. Analysts who pride themselves on intellectual toughness are surprisingly limp in following through the logic of the after-effects of their calls to arms, a syndrome we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

Darfur remains everyone’s favourite poster-case for R2P intervention. An R2P-type situation arose in Kenya earlier this year, when international attention and African reaction was engaged after the killings inside the church very much along R2P lines. A potential R2P situation might arise in Zimbabwe, with the army taking charge and liquidating opponents. Possible R2P scenarios can be imagined also in Nepal, Sri Lanka and North Korea. Yet even in Darfur, military intervention against the government could trigger an even worse humanitarian carnage: there is no crisis so dire that a war cannot make it worse.

Our responses continue to be ad hoc and reactive, rather than consolidated, comprehensive and preventive. Actually acting in time and effectively when governments are guilty of mass killings should - must - form the intervention agenda of R2P.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online - - (c) 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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About the Author

Ramesh Thakur is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and a Canadian as well as Australian citizen, is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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