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International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
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Ramesh Thakur
19 May 2008

Applying the UN responsibility-to-protect doctrine too broadly to natural disasters could do more harm than good.

(...) The mix of recent cases of inter-group armed violence and untended victims of natural disasters confirms the need for R2P, the risks of straying too widely from it and the difficulties of activating it even when warranted.

(...) Reflecting his humanitarian background, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested that the Security Council should invoke R2P [in cyclone-stricken Burma].

At first blush, this is a strange call. R2P<'s provenance is protecting at-risk populations from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Broadening it to cover contingencies like nuclear proliferation, environmental vandalism, HIV/AIDS and natural disasters may have the perverse effect of weakening support for R2P when we face the next Rwanda tomorrow without materially helping the needy today.

(...) While the legal case is powerful, the politics against it are compelling, which explains why it was dropped in 2005. Unless the Western powers want another war in the jungles of Southeast Asia, a war of relief delivery that will quickly turn into one of national liberation against foreign occupiers, it is better not to speak this language at all. (...)

Invoking R2P will make the generals, who are beyond shame, dig in their heels even more firmly. It will antagonise the Southeast Asian countries, whose political support is vital to communicating with the generals and persuading them to open up. It will alienate China, India and Japan, the three big Asian powers whose backing is essential for delivering any meaningful relief in Burma. It will prove divisive within the UN, reintroducing the North-South polarisation over "humanitarian intervention" that the R2P formula transcended.

(...) [T]he Western powers will damage their own political credibility and that of R2P by invoking it ineffectually. (...)

Darfur remains everyone's favourite poster-case for R2P intervention. An R2P-type situation arose in Kenya earlier this year, when international attention and African reaction was engaged after the killings inside the church very much along R2P lines. A potential R2P situation might arise in Zimbabwe, with the army taking charge and liquidating opponents. Possible R2P scenarios can be imagined also in Nepal, Sri Lanka and North Korea. Yet even in Darfur, military intervention against the government could trigger an even worse humanitarian carnage: there is no crisis so dire that a war cannot make it worse.

Our responses continue to be ad hoc and reactive, rather than consolidated, comprehensive and preventive. Actually acting in time and effectively when governments are guilty of mass killings should must form the intervention agenda of R2P. Sins of omission during natural and environmental disasters can be better handled under the prevention, persuasion and reconstruction formulations. When Burma's regime claims to be the "legitimate" government, the very concept is corrupted and highlights the international community's lack of courage in confronting the illegitimacy. (...)

We need a "paradigm shift" from a culture of reaction to one of prevention and rebuilding which would pre-empt the need for military intervention. ()

The West should get real. If R2P can be applied to force aid at the point of guns into Burma, can it be extended to protect the Palestinians from the serial collective punishments and hardships imposed by Israel? If our sense of justice and moral outrage is to trump political calculations, then should those who waged a war of aggression in Iraq be sent for criminal trial in an international court? Like the call to invoke R2P in Burma, the net result would be, not the criminal trial of powerful leaders, but the destruction of embryonic and fragile international institutions.

In short, first do more good than harm. Invoking R2P in Burma is a three-way lose-lose option. It will complicate, not ease, the delivery of relief; fracture the delicate consensus on R2P at the UN; and diminish the chances of protecting victims of atrocity crimes, which should be the primary focus of R2P. Maybe, after the humanitarian emergency has ended and if the action seems practicable, the Burmese generals could be tried for "crimes against humanity" at the International Criminal Court.

Ramesh Thakur, one of the original R2P commissioners, member of the international advisory board of the Global Centre for R2P in New York and a patron of the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P in Brisbane, is the author of "The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect." He is a distinguished fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science with University of Waterloo.


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