R2P Strikes a Chord: Sovereignty Alone Is Not Enough

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.

While it is no consolation for beleaguered Syrians, the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has moved to general acceptance much more rapidly than many of those who steered the 2005 World Summit declaration expected at the time. They saw it as a first, almost tentative, step on a Long March to global acceptance. In 2009, for example, only four manifestly expediently motivated states (Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, and Nicaragua) expressed any wish to rescind the 2005 decision—despite the latter’s foreign minister pushing that view in his capacity as President of the General Assembly.

In the recent UN General Assembly debate on R2P, few delegates questioned the principle itself. Indeed, the Assembly, representing mostly the smaller states which are supposedly so concerned about their sovereignty, had already overwhelmingly supported action in Syria and were clearly as unhappy with the Russian and Chinese abuse of veto power as they often are with Washington’s. Countries like Brazil and other “middle powers” have been actively working out methods of ensuring that R2P can be implemented over expedient superpower objections – while making sure those powers do not abuse the principle as, for example, some of them tried in Iraq.

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, now President of the University of Winnipeg, comments, “In 10 years [R2P] has moved from a concept to a principle to a basis for some action. It has had a very fast track, going from being accepted as a concept, on to being enshrined in the 2005 resolution to being cited in the Libya Security Council resolution. If you think about the ways the world runs, the present nation states have been around for about 250 years, while R2P has only been around for ten—and it has made huge inroads. It clearly struck a response: people really understand that sovereignty is not enough.”

However, on Syria, Axworthy sees “A perfect storm of self interest. Putin coming back to the presidency in Russia, [President Obama] coming up for reelection reluctant for stronger action, the EU financial crisis where the Europeans got cold feet. My own country now has a very conservative government that does not recognize R2P. The major players needed to make R2P work have been absent.”

Axworthy also admits that the current form of R2P suffers from the compromises that were needed to pass the concept initially.

The concept of humanitarian intervention flew in the face of the founding principle of the United Nations. Despite the reference in the preamble of the Charter to “We the Peoples,” the UN has always stood for national sovereignty, as well as the somewhat idealistic notion of equality that gives China the same vote as Nauru in the General Assembly, even if the pragmatism of the veto for the larger powers tempered that metaphysical concept.

In that respect, the UN has been more successful than people give it credit. There might have been annexations, but with few exceptions those have yet to be accepted as legitimate by the world community—whether Kuwait or East Timor. Mired in exegesis about sovereignty, however, the organization failed in Rwanda and the Balkans, just as it had failed the Kurds and Shi’a in Iraq.

The two principles intersected with the second Iraq War in 2003, which, as Kofi Annan admitted, had no UN legitimacy whatsoever, and which terminally polluted the concept of humanitarian intervention when British PM Tony Blair expediently added it to the list of dodgy excuses for the war.

Just as “ethnic cleansing” became a near synonym for genocide, so “humanitarian intervention” was transformed to signify Western neocolonialism under camouflage of do-gooding. That made the achievement of Annan, Axworthy, and the others so much more creditable when they shepherded R2P through the GA. For those who scorn the weaselly language of diplomacy, the evolution of R2P is instructive not least for the way it neatly replaced the degraded phrase of humanitarian intervention.

The failings of the 2005 Declaration are part of the price it took to get the concept accepted. Axworthy points out that the delicate negotiations had to stroke susceptibilities about expedient use of the concept, so “every sentence in the crucial paragraph 139 of the Outcome Document repeats verbatim the formula that prescribes the only four events agreed to trigger rise to R2P’s application: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.”

That, he points out, narrows the scope. “Simply measure the elements of risk. … Disasters, environmental disasters, changes, refugees, desertification in Sahel or hurricanes in Caribbean,” and of course, shortly afterwards, we had governments refusing international aid for populations devastated by storms and floods. What does that mean for R2P, if your life is threatened? It doesn’t matter if it’s a new epidemic virus or environmental disaster or an AK47 transcending boundaries, if you can’t feed your kids.” Within three years in 2008, the world looked on horrified as the government of Burma decided its sovereignty was more important than rescuing typhoon victims.

Even so, he considers that “It’s very healthy that it is now a basis for discussion. But there has to be a better balance between those who lean to the Old Westphalian system, and establishing an international framework, ensuring that it is used positively for a practical function and not for fairly narrow purposes. Safeguards issues should be built on exit issues, early warning issues, some form of constabulary.”

He cites Libya, as “a case in which political will (largely inspired by strong regional calls for action) combined with R2P’s principles to produce effective action to stop a threatened atrocity. The Security Council’s steadily escalating responses included sanctions, referral to the ICC, an arms embargo and then the imposition of a ‘no fly zone.’ These culminated in the Council’s authorization of ‘whatever steps may be necessary’ to protect the Libyan population.”

It is sad but true that often in the court of world public opinion actions that are entirely justifiable in themselves can be damned as expedient because opponents can point to other cases that implied impunity. Why is it so insufferable to allow the Libyan or Syrian governments to murder—but not Bahrain? Why should the world unite to stop the shelling of Homs, but nod understandingly when Gaza comes under fire? So, although the Russians and Chinese did not directly veto the action, they used it to mitigate effective action.

They might not have been that attached to Gaddafi’s survival but they used the exigencies that the compromise resolutions forced on NATO and the Arab League first to hamper effective action and then to decry it as going too far. It gave them the traditional prerogatives of the harlot: power without responsibility. As a result, Axworthy points out, “Part of the problem is that the way the Libyan thing ended up, since it did end up looking like the white guys in suits running the world.” That perception obviously plays to the pro-Assad gallery at the UN — although his friends are noted more for their obduracy and power than the number. But one of the reasons the P5 still have a real veto is that they are among the few powers that could threaten a force projection that would be effective in R2P.”

The veto will stay for the foreseeable future, although, just like R2P itself, that should not stop the small and medium powers waging a campaign of attrition against it. Somewhat naively the original Axworthy Commission looked to the GA and “the Uniting for Peace Resolution” as a means of bypassing the veto if the P5 refused to accept limits. But the US, which had originated the bypass mechanism to bypass unreasonable Soviet vetoes has since denied it when the Palestinians brought into play to bypass what most of the world sees as equally unreasonable vetoes on behalf Israel.

“What we are missing is a voice around the issue that can contend with these things, that can raise issues,” concludes Axworthy—even as he points out that the Harper government in Ottawa has effectively abandoned the high moral ground Canada once had.

Although Susan Rice is a strong supporter of the concept, the US and even President Obama are hamstrung by domestic politics in relation to Israel and the veto. Looking around the world, there is a distinct shortage of the presence that could once have shamed Moscow and Beijing, let alone the financial clout to make them listen.

It is fortunate that SG Ban Ki Moon is a strong supporter of R2P, but his diplomatic work-style is built on strong talking in private but less ostentatious, albeit firm, statements in public. He lacks that concentration of global influence that Annan could call upon — and he has surely been trying.

R2P as a concept might have arrived sooner than expected — but who would have expected such an almost complete absence of ethics and charisma in world capitals. Almost, with Syria, the endgame might depend on the Ba’athist regime doing something silly to provoke Turkey to invoke the traditional right of self-defense, as did for example Vietnam, Tanzania and India to halt atrocities in neighboring countries. It would not be the best outcome for international law, the UN or R2P—or for that matter, the Syrians.

More realistically, those Middle Powers could put their efforts together with those of Ban Ki Moon and his new Deputy Jan Eliasson to press the recalcitrant superpowers to show them that there is a price, diplomatic or financial, for covering for mass murder.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world. He is currently writing a book on the Americans who blame the United Nations for all the ills of the United States. For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.