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International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
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The New York Times
By Roger Cohen
21 February 2008

(...) After the cold war's end, and close to one million dead in the genocides of Bosnia (1992) and Rwanda (1994), and the digitally-induced dissolution of barriers and distances and hierarchies, some governments thought everything could remain the same.

They thought wrong, and not just in Havana and Pyongyang. They believed that in the age of globalization the principles of the Treaties of Westphalia, dating back to 1648, would be enough. In places like Moscow and Beijing and Belgrade, they clung to the idea that state sovereignty - the unfettered power of a state within its own jurisdiction - was the inviolable basis of international law.

Sovereignty, after Bosnia, after Rwanda, in a globalized world, was more than authority over territory and people. It was also responsibility.

When that responsibility to protect was flouted, when a government abused the basic rights of its citizens through slaughter or ethnic cleansing, sovereignty could in effect be suspended. As Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, put it: "State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined." For Annan, as Weiss has noted, "Human rights transcended narrow claims of state sovereignty."

Which brings us to "R2P." That's not a rock band or a chemical compound.

In 2005, the World Summit adopted the responsibilty to protect, known by that acronym. R2P formalized the notion that when a state proves unable or unwilling to protect its people, and crimes against humanity are perpetrated, the international community has an obligation to intervene - if necessary, and as a last resort, with military force.

Member states declared that, with Security Council approval, they were prepared "to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner" when "national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

An independent Kosovo, recognized by major Western powers, is in effect the first major fruit of the ideas behind R2P. It could not have happened if the rights of human beings were not catching up at last with the rights of states.

Appropriately, Kosovo's emergence coincided with the establishment in New York of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, directed by Weiss. Backed by the Canadian, British and Dutch governments, among others, and with support from Ban Ki Moon, Annan's successor, the organization's mission is the spread of R2P principles.

They need bolstering. The Iraq war has revived a 21st century sovereignty fetish exploited by Sudan to stall UN efforts to stop genocide in Darfur, where the government has failed utterly in its "responsibility to protect" without provoking "timely and decisive" international action.

Interventionism is increasingly seen in the Middle East and Africa as a camouflage for Western interests.

But I believe the tide will eventually turn. R2P will be a reference. It is part of what Lawrence Weschler has called "the decades-long, at times maddeningly halting, vexed, and compromised effort to expand the territory of law itself."

The "territory of law" is now also the universal territory on which human life is protected. Westphalian principles meet R2P. An R2P generation is coming. The prising open of the world is slow work, but from Kosovo to Cuba it continues.

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