The challenge of humanitarian intervention in conflicts, as former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan originally framed it, saw a bitter divide split Western from developing countries. When the Canadian-sponsored independent international commission held a regional meeting in New Delhi in June 2001, only the protocol officer from the External Affairs Ministry attended the reception hosted by the Swiss ambassador. India's opposition was that strong. When the commission reformulated the challenge as the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) and a slightly diluted version of the concept was adopted at the U.N. World Summit in 2005, some Western humanitarian warriors thought the body had conceded too much to developing countries. Many in the latter however continued to be strongly opposed to the R2P agenda. As Sri Lanka's war against the Tamil Tigers climaxed in May, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee found it useful to remind Colombo of its responsibility to protect everyone living in the country. India is not the only country to have softened its initial strong opposition to the norm. When R2P-skeptics organized a debate on R2P at the U.N. General Assembly in July, many of us feared the worst. The debate was called for by General Assembly President Father Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua, who in his background note described R2P as a "redecorated colonialism." He cited the case of Iraq as an example of R2P being abused, even though the U.S.-led invasion of the country took place more than two years before R2P's adoption. It turns out we had mistaken the volubility of the few for broad support among many. Because the expected sparks did not fly, the international press did not follow up predebate warnings of a bust-up with post-debate coverage of strong support for R2P--what bleeds leads, what does not bleed dies as a news story. Consequently, many retain an erroneous impression of the extent of opposition to R2P. Compared with the industrialized Western countries, developing countries are generally more interested in justice among rather than within nations, more concerned about the root causes of terrorism such as poverty, illiteracy and territorial grievances, more interested in economic development than worried about nuclear proliferation, and more committed to the defense of national sovereignty than the promotion of human rights. Individual differences within developing countries and among Westerners does not invalidate the generalization. R2P is about protecting at-risk populations mainly in developing countries. Because they will be the primary victims and potential beneficiaries, the conversation on R2P should be principally among them. In an attempt to paint R2P as largely a Western preoccupation, three of the four invited expert speakers in the General Assembly debate were Westerners. The ploy failed. The debate was addressed by 94 speakers, nearly two-thirds from developing countries. Almost all reaffirmed the 2005 consensus, expressed opposition to any effort to reopen it and insisted that its scope be restricted to the specified four crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Several expressed reservations about selectivity and double standards. Some urged voluntary self-restraint in the use of the veto when faced with atrocity crimes. There was near unanimity in accepting state and international responsibility to prevent atrocities through building state capacity and will, and providing international assistance, and in grounding these fundamental obligations in the U.N. Charter, human rights treaties and international humanitarian law. Most nations affirmed that, should other measures be inadequate, timely and decisive coercive action, including the use of force, was warranted to save lives. Few rejected the use of force in any circumstance. Only Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan and Venezuela sought to roll back the 2005 consensus. It was good to have countries such as Japan and Indonesia speak out in support of R2P. To have India endorse it was especially gratifying. Several speakers referred to such "root causes" as poverty and underdevelopment. Many talked of the need for a proper balance of responsibilities between the General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council in developing and implementing the new norm. Some pointed to a linkage between R2P and the agenda of international criminal prosecution. The caveats notwithstanding, several kept coming back to the core of the R2P norm--that in extremis, something needed to be done to avoid a shameful repeat of Rwanda-type inaction. Thus Ghana's delegate noted that R2P attempted to strike a balance between noninterference and what the African Union called nonindifference. The pro-R2P interventions in the debate by the delegates of East Timor and Rwanda were particularly poignant. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is right to warn "it would be counterproductive, and possibly even destructive, to try to revisit the negotiations" that produced the 2005 consensus. China's Ambassador Liu Zhenmin, speaking in the Security Council, warned that "it's not appropriate to expand, willfully to interpret or even abuse" R2P. Our ability and tools to act beyond our borders have increased tremendously and thereby increased demands and expectations "to do something." The choice in the real world is not between intervention and nonintervention, but between different modes of intervention: ad hoc or rules-based, unilateral or multilateral, and consensual or deeply divisive. R2P will help the world to be better prepared -- normatively, organizationally and operationally -- to meet the challenge wherever and whenever it again arises, as assuredly it will. To interveners, R2P offers the prospect of more effective results. To potential targets of intervention, R2P offers the reassurance of a rules-based system. It is rooted in human solidarity, not in exceptionalism of the virtuous West against the evil rest. Absent an agreed new set of rules, there will be nothing to stop the powerful from intervening "anywhere and everywhere." This is why in the General Assembly debate, speaker after speaker, from the global North and South, described the 2005 endorsement of R2P as historic, because it spoke to the fundamental purposes of the United Nations and it responds to a critical challenge of the 21st century. When postelection violence broke out in Kenya in December 2007 and January 2008, U.N. Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide Francis Deng urged the authorities to meet their responsibility to protect the civilian population. Archbishop Desmond Tutu interpreted the African and global reaction to the Kenyan violence as "action on a fundamental principle--the responsibility to protect." Called in to mediate, Annan too saw the crisis in R2P terms. His successful mediation to produce a power-sharing deal is our only positive R2P marker to date. Contrary to what many claim, R2P is rooted as firmly in indigenous values and traditions than in abstract notions of sovereignty derived from European thought and practice. Many traditional Asian cultures stress the symbiotic link between loyalty of citizens to sovereigns and duties owed by kings to subjects, a point made by civil society representatives who accordingly conclude that, far from abridging, R2P enhances sovereignty. As argued by Mohamed Sahnoun, cochair of the original international commission, in many ways R2P is a distinctly African contribution to global human rights. Similarly, India's Constitution imposes R2P-type responsibility on governments in its chapters on fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy. Still, support for R2P in the U.N. community is broad but not very deep. The July debate helped to sideline the small minority of skeptics, but probably only temporarily. R2P is more about building state capacity than undermining state sovereignty. The scope for military intervention is narrow and tight. The instruments for implementing prevention and reconstruction responsibilities are plentiful. The 2005 formulation of R2P meets the minimum requirement of the call to action of classical humanitarian intervention while protecting the bottom line interests of developing countries and thereby assuaging their legitimate concerns. It navigates the treacherous shoals between the Scylla of callous indifference to the plight of victims and the Charybdis of self-righteous interference in others' internal affairs. Thakur, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada, is the author of "The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect" (Cambridge University Press).
Responsibility to protect is universal
The Daily Yomiuri