Tuesday, January 6, 2009

the Security Council and the Death of Responsibility To Protect

My colleague Julia Gronnevet has written an op-ed piece in the Guardian about the ongoing battle at the UN between R2P and sovereignty.

Of course, this being not just UNHQ but also Acronym HQ, the whole discussion has been boiled down to R2P - "responsibility to protect", the formal name of the doctrine that says borders are nothing and human rights are everything.

John Boonstra responds:

This fanciful caricature unnecessarily divides R2P's audience into two divisive parts: the righteous and the rights-abusing. ... If we are to use these two terms to describe R2P, the best way to do so would be to interpret the doctrine as an attempt to reconcile the existing state-based international system (yes, complete with its borders and all the difficulties they bring) with the paramount global need to protect human rights.

The dispute here is what Responsibility To Protect actually means. Boonstra is writing about R2P as UN officials see it, as it was supposed to be: namely, a compact to help states protect their own citizens through political mediation and external aid (see Kofi Annan's successful Kenya diplomacy or John Holmes's tireless negotiating with the Burmese junta to allow UN aid to enter the country after Cyclone Nargis), with uninvited military intervention as a distant, seldom-used last resort that should scarcely be contemplated. Gronnevet, who works at the UN, is writing about R2P as the US, UK and France see it, which is, basically, a license to kill in the name of goodness, a license to throw out the Mugabes of the world and bring food aid to Cyclone-afflicted Burmese at gunpoint.

Because of this, Bernard Kouchner -- whom the French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert insists "invented responsibility to protect" -- also arguably killed it when he tried to apply it to Burma. The fact is, R2P used as a moral bludgeon to authorize military action against anyone we don't like will backfire, and arguably already has in the post-Iraq world, creating the deadlock on the Security Council that we see today. The best way for President-elect Obama to break this deadlock is to become more pragmatic about what R2P means and how to use it, to view it as Boonstra does, and as the UN Secretariat does, rather than as his own UN Ambassador apparently does.

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