A Meaningless Pledge

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A Meaningless Pledge

Below is the weekly post from the CFD:

Some are hailing the inclusion of language regarding a "responsibility to protect" in the draft declaration on UN reform to be discussed during the three-day summit being held in New York.

The "Responsibility to Protect" is, according to the seminal report on the topic
[T]he idea that sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe, but that when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states.
The report, and the idea, were generated by the international community's ignominious failure to intervene in situations such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The thinking was that it was necessary to shift the debate away from a "right to intervene," which carries serious implications for the cherished idea of national sovereignty, and toward a "responsibility to protect" those people in danger.

After much debate, compromise and rewriting, the final text included in the draft declaration came out looking like this
The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapter VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the UN Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case by case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to help states build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assist those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.
Nowhere has the Security Council or the UN member states actually pledged to do anything. This section carries no legal obligations; rather, it merely reiterates that the UN has a responsibility "to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity," which something they already an obligation to prevent under the Genocide Convention.

Note also that it doesn't say that the UN has a "responsibility to protect" but rather a responsibility ... to help protect" those at risk. That is a big difference.

As such, it is a little difficult to share Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin's excitement
But a Canadian-inspired initiative highlighting the world's responsibility to protect threatened people and prevent genocides is a clear move forward, Martin said.

The doctrine "essentially says that if Rwanda occurred today that the United Nations would act," he said, referring to the genocide that took an estimated 800,000 lives in the African country in the mid-1990s.
Considering that there is "another Rwanda" currently taking place in Darfur, why are we to expect that suddenly the UN is going to take seriously its "responsibility to protect"? Has the UN failed to act thus far solely because it lacked this one resolution? The UN has resisted acting on Darfur for two years and there is absolutely no reason to believe that this recognition of a theoretical "responsibility to protect" will have any impact on the legal or political concerns that have thus far prevented action.

If the UN and its members truly believed in the "responsibility to protect," they would be protecting the people of Darfur, not writing resolutions vaguely promising to act when Darfur-like situations arise in the future.

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