The Responsibility to Protect and the Problem of Regime Change
27 September 2011
The use of attack helicopters by the UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire to oust Laurent Gbagbo from power in April 2011 and NATO’s decision to interpret UN Security Council Resolution 1973as permission for the use of airpower to assist the Transitional National Council of Libya to overthrow the Gaddafi regime provoked a strong response from several UN member states. Long-standing critics of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP), Nicaragua and Venezuela, used particularly blunt language to criticise what they saw as the UN’s complicity in neo-imperialist interventionism dressed up in humanitarian garb. Nicaragua complained: “Once again we have witnessed the shameful manipulation of the slogan “protection of civilians” for dishonourable political purposes, seeking unequivocally and blatantly to impose regime change, attacking the sovereignty of a State Member of the United Nations [Libya] and violating the Organization’s Charter. Once again, the logic of interventionism and hegemony has prevailed through a disastrous decision with incalculable potential consequences for tens of millions of individuals worldwide.” (…)
More worryingly than these stark criticisms from two of the half a dozen or so unreconstructed opponents of RtoP, however, was the fact that three members of the emerging ‘BRICS’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) group – all of whom had moved over the past few years towards an accommodation with the new principle – also spoke out strongly against the UN’s and NATO’s actions in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya. (…)
The relationship between RtoP and regime change has long been an uncomfortable one. The principal objections to the 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty which coined the phrase Responsibility to Protect came from states and commentators worried about the widened potential for abuse that may accompany any relaxing of the general prohibition on force contained in Article 2(4) of the Charter.
In the light of these concerns, it is hardly surprising that the consensus that emerged on RtoP in 2005 depended to a great extent on efforts to distinguish it from the concept regime change. This was achieved in two principal ways. First, and most importantly, paragraph 139 of the World Summit Outcome Document stated quite categorically that any use of force must be expressly authorised by the UN Security Council acting under Chapter VII of the Charter. (…) Second, the agreement was just as emphatic on the scope of RtoP. Whilst ICISS had failed to pin down precisely what it was that RtoP referred to (listing all manner of different forms of human insecurity at different junctures of the report), the 2005 World Summit agreement was absolutely clear that the principle referred to the crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Because each of these crimes was already prohibited and because states committed to exercise their RtoP through the UN Charter, the principle emerged not as a new legal principle but rather as a political commitment to implement already existing law. Thus conceived, RtoP could only give rise to the use of force when the Security Council judged it necessary in order to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity or to protect populations from these four crimes.
Neither UNOCI (UN Operation in Cote d’Ivoire)’s activities in Cote d’Ivoire nor NATO’s in Libya contravened the letter of this consensus. Both acted under Chapter VII resolutions which authorised the use of force to protect civilians. In the strictest sense, therefore, the problem was not so much the use of force to protect civilians from mass atrocities – in both cases this had been duly authorised by the Security Council – but the facts that this use of force resulted in regime change and that this result was intended by those responsible for implementing the Security Council’s decisions even though the Council itself had not specifically authorised regime change. Given the sensitivities identified earlier, it is not surprising that the Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on RtoP, Edward Luck, responded to questions about the link between RtoP and regime change by insisting that the two were distinct. He told the Council on Foreign Relations, ‘I should say that it isn’t the goal of the responsibility to protect to change regimes. The goal is to protect populations. It may be in some cases that the only way to protect populations is to change the regime, but that certainly is not the goal of the R2P per se’. But Luck’s answer rightly points to a fundamental dilemma: in situations where a state is responsible for committing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and/or crimes against humanity, how can the international community exercise its responsibility to protect populations without imposing regime change?
It may well be that Luck is right to argue that in some situations only regime change will do – I think he is. But because of the deep concern on the part of many member states that RtoP could give rise to a regime change agenda and the equally deep global opposition to such an agenda, it is incumbent on us to explore the relationship more deeply in order to ascertain whether there are ways of maintaining a clear distinction between RtoP and regime change without sacrificing the protection of civilians. This is particularly urgent given the evidence that among other factors, the perception among the BRICS that the UN and NATO went too far in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya has encouraged them to block a timely, decisive and united response to the killing of civilians by the governments in Syria and Yemen.
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