R2P stands for “Responsibility to Protect,” a phrase and an idea tirelessly promoted by Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister. The United Nations has been debating the idea this week in the General Assembly.
What is it? Four years ago a meeting of more than 150 world leaders issued a declaration asserting that the “international community” (however that is defined) has a “right” and a duty to protect people from genocide and mass killings, especially when their own government will not or cannot protect them. The situation everyone probably had in mind was the mass murders in Rwanda and in Bosnia in the 1990’s. The world mostly stood by and watched, saying “What can we do? It is an internal affair of that country.”
The declaration says, no, mass atrocities and genocide are not internal political affairs, but moral issues that concern all civilized people. It is seen as a small extension to widely accepted international principles of human rights.
According to the R2P principle, if the government of a country could not or would not protect its own people from mass slaughter, then, if the security council of the United Nations agreed, the U.N. could intervene by providing advice and mediation. If that did not work, then in an extreme case, armed intervention would be justified to protect the afflicted population. The proposal has been endorsed by U.N. Secretary Ban Ki Moon.
Who could be against this? Surely we do not want to sit by and watch another slaughter like we saw in Rwanda?
The question is, who defines what counts as “atrocity” or “genocide”? Is the killing in Darfur a genocide? The leaders in Khartoum don’t say so. They are just fighting rebels, they say. The U.N. has no right to interfere.
According to Miguel D’Escoto, the U.N. General Assembly president, R2P is just a disguised form of neo-colonialism to be used by big Western powers to impose their will on the weak. It is a fig leaf for a big country to wear as it invades a smaller one.
Recently, Russia appealed to the R2P principle as a reason it “had to” invade Georgia. Is that wrong? Hitler used the R2P argument to invade Czechoslovakia before World War II. Japan claimed it “had to” invade Manchuria in 1931 to end the slaughter of its citizens there. So clearly the principle can be used for various ends.
Nevertheless, it seems that if the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China, the members of the U.N. security council who rarely agree on anything, all agreed that invocation of R2P was appropriate, that would seem to be an adequate judicial opinion. But some countries who are not members of that club disagree.
Not everyone in the U.S. is sold on the idea of R2P either. The GW Bush administration was worried that a vote could be taken against US actions around the world, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, in the name of preventing inhuman slaughter of innocents. Obama’s government has supported the idea.
If we were not a permanent member of the security council, how would we feel about this principle, having no veto over its execution? Would we be fearless? Surely we know genocide when we see it, and we ourselves would never commit genocide! No? We have in the past. We wiped out the American Indians. We wiped out two Japanese cities with nuclear bombs. We killed an awful lot of Vietnamese for no obvious reason. There is just no reason to think that any particular country could be immune from a U.N. resolution to invade on grounds of R2P. Nobody wants to be in that position.
So despite what seems to be a no-brainer extension to the basic principles of human rights, the U.N. will not endorse the R2P idea this week. Fear for self-preservation is much stronger than any noble impulse to help nameless foreigners in some god-forsaken corner of the globe. It’s a pity. We have not really come so far from the big monkeys we started out as.