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When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma a month ago, killing as many as a hundred thousand people, the French foreign minister invoked the “responsibility to protect” as a way to override the Burmese government’s intransigence and thus deliver live-saving aid. For weeks, aid trickled in as planes sat on runways and ships sat offshore. Tragically, more than a million survivors have yet to receive assistance, and this after suffering decades of abuse from their government.

The case shows how contested humanitarian intervention remains, even when the use of force is only timidly on the table. The Burmese regime claimed their sovereign right to deny visas, fearing interference in their domestic affairs. The French argued that saving lives trumps sovereignty. But who was right in this case, and what should be the American position?

One way to think about the responsibility to protect, or “R2P,” is to ask the extent to which the rules now being debated at the U.N. affect U.S. interests. Americans are right to ask what a notion that overrides sovereignty in principle, and may cost American lives in practice, has to do with liberty at home. The answer is that the underlying idea of a government’s responsibility to its people, the American Idea, is at risk in the contentious debates over intervention. As others seek to shape R2P in their image, Americans should seek to protect this underlying principle.

What makes intervention debates so contentious, and another reason Americans have a stake in the debate, is the emergence of deep divisions on the three fundamental questions: Who may authorize intervention? When is it justified? Are states ever obligated to intervene? Contests over the very nature of sovereignty, the nature of international law, and the very nature of human rights have led to diverse perspectives on R2P.

So, what is R2P? Proponents such as the U.N. secretary-general’s new special assistant for R2P, Edward Luck, take a political constructivist view and call it an emerging international norm ripe for codification. Pope Benedict recently called it a fundamental principle of the international order based on the natural law. Critics have called it everything from a license for Western imperial aggression to a ruse for curtailing American power.

The actual meaning is not so straightforward. As accepted by all world leaders in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, it sounds less controversial:

Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity . . . . The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter . . . we are prepared to take collective action . . . including Chapter VII . . . should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.

There is room in the negotiated text to allow disagreement (and consensus) on the question of who may legitimately authorize intervention. The French and the Germans brought this to fever pitch during the 2003 Iraq War debate. Some French officials went so far as to say that a Security Council resolution was both a legal and a moral necessity. American and British leaders maintained the traditional view that this right is reserved to sovereign states.

So, in a way, this is a dispute between those who see the prerogatives of U.S. political military dominance as a force for good, and those who fear the “hyper-power” and would balance or contain it. The latter would rule out U.S. unilateralism, while putting the Global Sheriff at the service of the international community. It is telling that the man who championed R2P after the failed interventions of the 1990s, former secretary-general Kofi Annan, rejected his progeny in the wake of the Iraq War. His successor, Ban Ki-moon, has likened it to “a sacred calling.”

Opposition is widespread and eclectic. At a recent briefing at U.N. headquarters in April, I saw the lines clearly drawn, with the Sudanese ambassador front and center to denounce any claim that Darfur might be ripe for asserting the principle. Egypt had just led a failed campaign in the General Assembly fifth committee to get rid of the special assistant’s job all together. In Washington, conservatives wary about U.S. sovereignty dismiss it all together. At the Security Council, China and Russia remain skeptical of anything that may bring interference in their domestic affairs.

Much of the resistance seems disingenuous, considering that the list of four egregious crimes (and therefore reasons for intervention) is short¯some say too short. Given that it includes genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, is there any reason Americans should object?

After all, doesn’t this enshrine the very idea that every person, no matter his origin, is endowed with inalienable rights? Chief among these is the right to life and to liberty, or freedom from grievous assaults on human dignity, such as slavery or crimes that otherwise shock the conscience of mankind. Americans have a track record of deciding that such moral principle is worth protecting, even to the point of laying down American lives.

But should Americans be obligated to do so? Jean-Marc Coicaud of U.N. University says yes, arguing that rights and obligations need laws and cannot be left to mere “moral judgment.” But moral suasion has worked when there is political will. Recall the remarkable consensus achieved during the 1999 NATO bombing to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo despite the Security Council standoff. Only Britain claimed they had an obligation to intervene, and even then it was moral and not legal. Recall also that the Kosovo war has somewhat awkwardly been deemed “legitimate” by those who called it “illegal.”

The reason for a new law, then, seems to be a hedge not against a lack of moral outrage but of political will. Such was the case in the face of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Yet the United States and its allies are party to a binding treaty against genocide, and none of them has said it is extraterritorial. It is doubtful that a new law, even a binding one, would be enough to overcome political resistance.

The next logical purpose for the new construct, then, would seem to be the desire to create enforcement mechanisms. The authors of the 2001 report on “Responsibility to Protect” say its primary purpose is to shift emphasis from the right of powerful states to intervene to the right of citizens to be protected by their governments. It is important to note that the term “international responsibility to protect” in the 2001 report is absent from the 2005 World Summit document.

Even if consensus were achievable on this point, using the U.N. system to hold states accountable for human-rights violations is problematic. The demise of the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the disrespect that nations show for the council that replaced it are well known. Less transparent but perhaps more insidious is the way U.N. human-rights treaty experts and U.N. special rapporteurs have been complicit in the abuse by reinterpreting treaty documents with a host of controversial new rights and undermining the credibility of the U.N. human-rights system.

This leads to the final important question: Once we have stopped the atrocities, what are we offering to replace people’s suffering? Beyond a responsibility to stabilize and rebuild countries, what version of a just society is being advanced at the international level? Are rights considered inalienable and endowed by our Creator, or commodities doled out by the government or occupying power: security, food, development, reproductive health, and so on?

When the war in Kosovo ended, international organizations and some 4,000 Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) flooded in to help Kosovo build a modern society. After nine years of stymied development and sporadic violence, the province declared independence from Serbia on February 17 and released its draft constitution. The text contained highly controversial social policies out of step with the conservative Muslim and Christian society, as well as limitations on the freedoms of speech and religion to dissent from them. I led a group of concerned NGOs that met with the president and other leaders in Pristina and expressed our concerns. We got puzzled responses in return: “It was you Western experts that told us we had to put all that in there!”

The constitutional process was hardly democratic: Kosovars were never allowed to see the constitution during a year of so-called public debate on it. Religious leaders were snubbed. The Assembly rushed to approve the constitution but never voted on it or even discussed it. True or not, the United States was seen as the biggest influence on the process.

Is this the just and lasting peace for which intervention is directed? Should we be satisfied with this version of democracy promoted in our name? If so, will we inspire other nations to accept American democratic ideals of liberty?

In his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly, Pope Benedict XVI seemed to offer us a way back. First, he said, “The principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ was considered by the ancient ius gentium as the foundation of every action taken by those in government with regard to the governed . . . . Now, as then, this principle has to invoke the idea of the person as image of the Creator, the desire for the absolute and the essence of freedom.” In this light, R2P is not a new norm to be codified or waved away, and rights are not interests to be pitted one against the other. Such a competitive version of rights cannot lead to peace, as William DeMars has ably pointed out.

Consider what happened to charity. The idea has almost disappeared from humanitarian discourse. Advocates of the rights-based approach say charity is not just old-fashioned but demeaning to recipients. But does not charity¯properly understood¯require the solidarity that contemporary humanitarians strive to promote? More than legal obligation, the moral impulse of charity requires the full consent of the giver. It is an act of liberty possible and promoted in free societies.

Americans can help protect the principle of responsible sovereignty from getting lost in a fracas over enforcement. The United States should shape the debate through insistence on U.N. reform and a proper understanding of authority, law, and obligation in the international context. And it can seek out likeminded regional democracies with the capacity and courage to carry principle into action. Given the countless number of people suffering unspeakable atrocities today, the task is well worth our labor.

Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D., leads the International Organizations Research Group at Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM). This essay is based on a presentation delivered at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.


2005 World Summit Outcome Document

Benedict XVI’s Address to the United Nations

More on: Public Life

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