UN debate on genocide asks: protect or intervene?
By John Heilprin
21 July, 2009
Out of genocides past and Africa's tumult a controversial but seldom-used diplomatic tool is emerging: The concept that the world has a "responsibility to protect" civilians against their own brutal governments.
At the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pushed Tuesday for more intervention for the sake of protection.
"The question before us is not whether, but how," Ban told the assembly, recalling two visits since 2006 to Kigali, Rwanda. The genocide memorial he saw there marks 100 days of horror in which more than half a million members of the Tutsi ethnic minority and moderates from the Hutu majority were slaughtered.
"It is high time to turn the promise of the 'responsibility to protect' into practice," Ban said.
Rwanda's genocide began hours after a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down as it approached Kigali on the evening of April 6, 1994. The slaughter ended after rebels, led by current President Paul Kagame, ousted the extremist Hutu government that had orchestrated the killings.
"We still find ourselves in a world that has so far been maybe willing, but less likely committed to stop genocide and similar crimes," said Jacqueline Murekatete, a human rights activist who was 9 years old in Rwanda when she lost her entire family to the genocide.
Among those questioning the concept has been General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, a leftist Nicaraguan priest and former foreign minister who organized a two-day debate starting Thursday. He issued a four-page "concept note" that made clear his reservations.
"Colonialism and interventionism used responsibility to protect arguments," says the paper issued by d'Escoto's office. "National sovereignty in developing countries is a necessary condition for stable access to political, social and economic rights, and it took enormous sacrifices to recover this sovereignty and ensure these rights for their populations."
William Pace, executive director of the World Federalist Movement's Institute for Global Policy, said d'Escoto's views are a "political misuse of the GA presidency" since they contradict the General Assembly's 2005 endorsement of the 'responsibility to protect' doctrine.
"It is not a synonym for military intervention," Pace added.
The idea that the world should take responsibility if nations fail to protect their own population was first promoted by Ban's predecessor, Kofi Annan, in 1999, citing conflicts in Angola, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor.
It gained huge momentum with the African Union's endorsement in 2000. The General Assembly backed it in 2005, though a budget committee has yet to provide funding for a special adviser's office.
In 2006, the U.N.'s most powerful body, the 15-nation Security Council, threw its weight behind the idea in two legally binding resolutions.
Proponents have recently pushed to implement it in places like Darfur, Congo, Kenya, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
In May 2008, for example, the council discussed a proposal by France to authorize the U.N. to enter Myanmar and deliver aid without waiting for approval from the nation's ruling military junta. China and Russia, citing issues of sovereignty, blocked the idea.
And in July 2008, Russia and China vetoed U.S.-proposed sanctions on Zimbabwe's leaders, rejecting an attempt by the global community to take action against an authoritarian regime widely criticized for a violent and one-sided presidential election.
At her first appearance before the Security Council in January, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice used the occasion to emphasize that the Obama administration takes the concept seriously. Earlier this month, at the Group of Eight summit in Italy, President Barack Obama called it "one of the most difficult questions in international affairs."
There is no "clean formula" for when to act, Obama said, but there are "exceptional circumstances in which I think the need for international intervention becomes a moral imperative, the most obvious example being in a situation like Rwanda where genocide has occurred."
Ban advised limiting U.N. action under the 'responsibility to protect' concept to safeguarding civilians against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. He acknowledged the possibility of some nations "misusing these principles" as excuses to intervene unnecessarily, but said the challenge before the U.N. is to show that "sovereignty and responsibility are mutually reinforcing principles."
"Military action is a major last — not first — resort," he said. "No part of the world has a monopoly on wisdom or morality."