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Debate: UN responsibility to protect civilians

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(Background and context)
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[[Category:Human rights]] [[Category:Human rights]]
[[Category:Peacekeeping]] [[Category:Peacekeeping]]

Revision as of 03:58, 12 June 2009

Should the the United Nations take more measures to protect civilians in humanitarian crises?

Background and context

Throughout the 1990s humanitarian disasters and perceived United Nations' failures in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Sudan led to considerable discussion of the need for military intervention to stop atrocities among civilian populations, even though this would involve overriding traditional notions of state sovereignty.
In 2000 a Canadian government initiative led to the creation of an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which produced a report in 2001 calling for the recognition of a Responsibility to Protect citizens on the part of both national governments and the global community. This drew on existing thinking in the 1948 International Convention against Genocide, in which the United Nations and its members recognised that there were times when sovereignty should be disregarded to prevent crimes against humanity. It went further, however, in arguing that a vital part of sovereignty was the responsibility of the state to protect its people, and that if a government was either deliberately targeting part of its population, or failing through inaction to protect them from serious harm, then it forfeited this sovereignty. The Commission then argued that if human rights were truly universal, then the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) against gross violations did not stop at state borders, but that the international community were obliged to intervene to uphold these rights in particular cases. The thinking of the ICISS was later adopted by the UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel, which argued in 2004 that the UN should take on

Argument #1


The United Nations should take on a responsibility to protect people when their governments are unable or unwilling to do so, in order to prevent mass killings, genocide and other atrocities. If we believe human rights have any meaning at all, then they must be universal and therefore our obligation to protect human rights must apply regardless of state boundaries. Moving from a situation where the UN placed the rights of states above those of their people, to one where individual rights are given the greater priority is surely morally essential.


The opposition agrees that we all have a moral duty to protect human rights and prevent atrocities, but disagrees about making a vague and open-ended commitment. In particular there is a big difference between a genocide pursued by a strong, centralised state victimising its own people, and the inability of a failing state to protect its civilians in a time of civil war or ethnic unrest. Making decisions on a case-by-case basis recognises that every crisis is different in character and requires a different and proportionate response. In any case, there is a moral contradiction in the Proposition's position. If there is a universal responsibility to protect, why must this only be exercised through the United Nations, dependent upon Security Council recognition of a crisis and support for action? The United States believes that in some cases it would be right for individual states, or coalitions of the willing to take action to protect innocent life elsewhere in the world, even if the Security Council refused to deliver on its promises. Under the proposition, NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1998/99 was wrong, and so was Vietnam's in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge, Tanzania's in Uganda to stop Idi Amin's bloodshed, etc. - none of these had Security Council support.

Argument #2


We can no longer argue that sovereignty must be considered absolute. Countries and governments have an obligation to protect human rights and defend their citizens from harm. Traditionally sovereignty was about the defence of the nation and its people in pursuit of this duty to protect - it was seen as the most important function of government, exercised through the military and the state's forces of law and order. If governments today are unable or unwilling to perform this duty to protect their people from harm, then their claims to sovereignty lose their moral force and intervention becomes justified. This is especially true when the state uses its might against its own people.


The Proposition is seeking to turn the United Nations into something it is not. From a group of cooperating but sovereign states, secure from external intervention if they live peaceably with their neighbours, the UN would be turned into some sort of global congress of humanity, where borders played no part. This may seem a utopian vision, but the nation state has a good record of delivering responsive, accountable government to which individual citizens can feel a strong personal commitment, and which is able to meet their particular cultural, religious, environmental and economic needs. International institutions are at best impersonal and remote, and at worst an unaccountable and undemocratic imposition. The United States is right to oppose any language and commitments which would advance the cause of those who would turn the UN into a world government.

Argument #3


The world and the United Nations have for too long stood by and watched atrocities unfold. Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur are all horrible examples where genocide and other appalling violations of human rights were inflicted upon civilian populations while the UN failed to act. Clearly in all the past cases where action might have saved lives and delivered hundreds of thousands of people from evil, no action was taken by the Security Council. Therefore those who argue that future challenges should be considered purely on a case-by-case basis must accept that this is likely to mean yet more refusals to act decisively and so more needless suffering. We must place an obligation to act on the Security Council so that they are predisposed to respond seriously and swiftly in future. Countries who are not prepared for this obligation should step down from the Security Council.


A blanket commitment could lead the United Nations and the word into great dangers. Despite the good intentions of the Proposition, they must consider whether intervention with force is always practical. For example, in the past China's government has committed horrific human rights abuses, such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre. These surely show a state unable or unwilling to protect its citizens and would have invited intervention under this proposal. Or perhaps you feel these are purely historical examples - but what if the Chinese regime in future used horrific force to put down future risings by Uighur or Tibetan ethnic minorities? Or what about present Russian behaviour in Chechnya? Would the UN really deliver on an

Argument #4


A strong United Nations commitment to the Right to Protect will create an effective deterrent to future atrocities. Governments and leaders who are considering attacks on their own people, or who are wavering in their commitment to defend them from harm, will know that ignoring their own obligations will bring swift action from the international community. Only once their ability to hide behind claims to absolute sovereignty has been removed will human rights be taken seriously by dictators and extremist regimes. Thus by adopting a strong UN position on the Responsibility to Protect, we can make states take their own responsibilities more seriously and make the need for any actual intervention very rare.


An apparently strong UN obligation to intervene in order to protect innocents will not provide any deterrent effect. Many of the dictators and generals who visit atrocities on their own peoples are not rational, and cannot think in terms of deterrence even if in theory the idea is sound. Furthermore, many of the nasty or failing regimes who might be fearful of intervention have a Security Council patron whom they can rely upon to prevent any action being taken against them. If the UN has an obligation to act to prevent atrocities such as genocide, then vetoes will be used to prevent the Security Council recognising that such a situation exists in the first place. Finally, this proposal may make atrocities more likely, by encouraging rebel groups to provoke ill-disciplined government forces into committing gross human rights violations, such as massacres, in the hope that such a response will draw in international forces on their own side.

Argument #5


The United Nations does have a problem raising sufficient money, troops and resources to meet its present needs for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. This is precisely because all such operations are dealt with on a case-by-case basis - the approach so beloved of the opposition for dealing with any challenge. Without a clear global commitment over the Responsibility to Protect, the UN will always be scrabbling around to meet its needs in dealing with individual crises. Once there is clear agreement on the kind of situation which will in future prompt intervention, the UN can begin to plan ahead to build up resources, create contingency funds, and seek pledges of military units from member states, to be activated swiftly as needed.


The United Nations struggles to meet its current needs, in terms of funding for emergency relief, development work, health initiatives, etc. and also in terms of peacekeeping troops, military hardware and transport, etc. It is in no position to make sweeping promises about future commitments that might involve large-scale military interventions around the globe, perhaps sometimes in more than one place at the same time. At the very best, such an extra burden would draw resources and funding away from the UN's vitally important current programmes. At worst, intervention would be undertaken with too few troops, badly equipped and unable to fulfil their mandate.

Argument #6


The United States is in very bad company in seeking to oppose or water down a United Nations' Responsibility to Protect. Among the few other nations who refused to back a strong UN commitment on R2P at the September 2005 Summit were Iran, Cuba, Syria and Zimbabwe. Making common cause with such routine abusers of human rights should ring alarm bells with all Americans and make the Bush Administration reconsider its foreign policy objectives. Apart from the moral disgust of siding with such strongholds of oppression, it clearly undermines the USA abroad to be seen as refusing to take a strong stance against genocide and other atrocities and makes any claims to operating a principled foreign policy look hypocritical.


By seeking a revolution in the role of the UN and its relationship with individual states, this measure may do a great deal of harm. Rejecting the ambitions of an unelected global elite, states may withdraw from membership and even build defensive alliances against the UN. The collapse of the United Nations as a meaningful international institution may follow, with the loss of all the good work it pursues in areas of humanitarian relief, peacekeeping and development, and the death of a forum for preserving peace between nations.

Argument #7


It is important to realise that the Responsibility to Protect does not always require military intervention. Indeed, prevention has been stressed in discussions of R2P and in the September 2005 UN Summit Declaration. Often this can be achieved by diplomatic, legal, and political measures, with the possibility of economic sanctions. In each case the aim is to restore the ability and willingness of the country concerned to protect its own people. The direct intervention with force by the international community will only be a rare last resort. A vigorous commitment to meeting our obligations under the Responsibility to Protect should not therefore be seen primarily as a military commitment, but as a strengthening of the UN's resolve to address potential crises early enough to make a difference and head off disaster.


Talk of prevention and of using non-military means to ensure states protect their own people properly is little different from existing UN commitments. The UN has failed in the past to head off humanitarian crises and there is nothing in the new Declarations to make it more likely to be successful in future. If the responsibility to protect means anything, it is to weaken the concept of sovereignty and make military intervention more likely. Yet so-called

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