COMMENT: Though this article was published May 15th, it is still relevant and important in acknowledging the further circumventing of ‘sovereignty’ and also shows the false claim of ‘right to intervene’– an alternate method to sanctions that have now been imposed by the U.S.

The new notion of global responsibility to alleviate suffering has struggled to win acceptance—and Myanmar will not be the place where it comes of age

The Economist

“IT WOULD only take half an hour for the French boats and French helicopters to reach the disaster area.” Those were the wistful words uttered by Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister, as his country’s diplomats at the United Nations vainly argued that aid might have to be “imposed” on Myanmar if the military regime refused to co-operate.

Even as he spoke, diplomats from China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia were mocking his idea that the “responsibility to protect” (a new concept in global affairs, implying that saving human lives might in some extreme circumstances override sovereignty) could be invoked in the case of Myanmar’s cyclone. China noted acidly that the idea had not been cited in 2003 when France suffered a deadly heatwave.

David Miliband, Britain’s foreign secretary, reignited the debate on May 13th. Challenged by a radio interviewer to say whether the new concept (designed to deal with crimes like genocide or ethnic cleansing) could also apply to natural disasters, he replied: “It certainly could, and we have been absolutely clear…that all instruments of the UN should be available.” But nobody expects Britain, France or any other country to fight its way into Myanmar. As Mr Miliband observed, “the regime has 400,000 troops in uniform.” For ordinary people, unfamiliar with the UN’s arcane workings, it looks rather depressing. Will there ever be a good moment to cite the notion of a responsibility to protect—unanimously adopted by more than 150 states at the UN World Summit in 2005—as Mr Kouchner is now suggesting?

The tortuous development of that concept is a tale close to the French minister’s heart. As a young doctor, he saw the horrors of the Biafran famine triggered by Nigeria’s civil war. Soon afterwards he co-founded Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and became a leading supporter of the “right of humanitarian intervention” in cases where governments fail their own people.

What Mr Kouchner was proposing sounded, in its stronger versions, like a revolution in global affairs—overturning the 1648 treaty of Westphalia, which upheld the right of sovereign states to act freely within their own borders. The UN Charter of 1945 also upholds the Westphalia principles, by stating in article 2(7), that “nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” But Chapter VII does entitle the Security Council to take action in cases of a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression”.

Tension between those two principles—sovereignty versus intervention—has been palpable for decades. Some countries stress the enforcement powers laid down by Chapter VII. Others (mostly in the poor world) insist that state sovereignty always trumps, even in humanitarian emergencies.

In practice, since the end of the cold war the UN has been intervening more often in conflicts within (as opposed to between) states. Sometimes it has happened with, and sometimes without, the consent of the governments concerned.

In 1999 Tony Blair became the first world leader to assert a moral right to “get actively involved in other people’s conflicts”—even without leave from the Security Council—if it was the only way to stop dire suffering. Speaking in Chicago after NATO’s war over Kosovo, which the Security Council had declined to endorse, Britain’s then prime minister made the case for “just war, based not on territorial ambitions, but on values”.

Four years later, an American-led coalition invaded Iraq, using somewhat similar rhetoric about the need to overthrow a dangerous tyrant for the good of everyone. Although it wasn’t in any formal or legal sense a test case for responsibility to protect, many people felt that the disastrous outcome in Iraq discredited the entire idea of intervention for “altruistic” purposes.

Less of a right, more of a duty

Meanwhile, Canada had set up an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, under the chairmanship of Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, and Mohamed Sahnoun, a former Algerian diplomat. In their report, published in 2001, it was they who first suggested changing the discretionary “right to intervene” into a more muscular “responsibility to protect”, or R2P as it is known in diplomatic jargon. Under it, the “international community” (in effect the UN) would be placed under an actual obligation to take, if necessary, coercive action to protect people at risk of grave harm, in accordance with clear criteria.

Taken up by a High-Level Panel on UN reform in 2004 and adopted by Kofi Annan, then UN secretary-general, the principle survived the haggling in the run-up to the 2005 World Summit to squeeze its way into the final “Outcome Document”, though shorn of criteria. But it was never intended to cope with the aftermath of natural disasters or even “ordinary” human-rights violations. It was to be invoked only for genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity.

From the start, the idea was viewed by the developing world as a trick by the West to impose its values. Cuba, Egypt, Russia, Algeria and Myanmar have been vocal opponents. They have been leading a determined effort to obstruct the formal appointment of Edward Luck, a professor at Columbia University, as a special UN adviser on the issue. He still has no salary, no real title and no UN office.

Others, this time in the West, are asking whether responsibility to protect will ever be more than an empty slogan. When it came to it, who would be willing to intervene? How could such action ever get past all five of the Security Council’s veto-wielding powers? Besides, as a senior UN official laments, the Iraq fiasco has “poisoned this well”. It showed that an armed intervention, even if its declared aims are benign, can set off a whole chain of terrible consequences.


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