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The State’s Duty to Protect: Enforcement in Question

America Magazine
George M. Anderson
10 August 2009
A nation-state’s duty to support and defend its population, known as the responsibility to protect, or R2P, was the subject of a debate at the United Nations General Assembly in July. (…)The July debate, the first on the subject at the United Nations since 2005, reflected the fact that not all member states agree on how to implement the three pillars that support it.
(…)The very concept of R2P stems from a positive view of sovereignty as responsibility. But past events like those in Rwanda, as well as ongoing conflicts in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, show that this positive view of sovereignty is not shared by all. The three pillars of R2P are not thought to be of equal height, and what rests on top of them can therefore be unbalanced. The answer may well lie, as d’Escoto Brockmann said in his opening statement, in the creation of “a more just and equal world order, including in the economic and social sense, as well as a Security Council.” In the meantime more needs to be done to build trust and to recognize that pillar three may provide the only solution to some otherwise intractable situations. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it in an open letter to the member states, “If a state cannot or will not prevent or end these crimes, then the international community must...take decisive protecting vulnerable peoples when States are unwilling to do so.”
Most would not deny that the R2P principle has been misused by powerful nation-states. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has said that it had been inappropriately used in conflicts like the largely American-led invasion of Iraq. But there have been some notable victories. In his report, the secretary general spoke approvingly of the way the international community’s timely intervention in Kenya took place early enough to forestall further bloodshed after the disputed election of 2008. As he put it, “If the international community acts early enough, the choice need not be a stark one between doing nothing and using force.” Less than stark choices are now available, if the needed political will is brought to bear.


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