Is R2P “humanitarian intervention” a form of imperialism? and a shift from a frying pan into a fire?


colmans-column3 Padraig Colman, courtesy of Ceylon Today where the title is “Pros and Cons of R2P

Louise Arbour, of the International Crisis Group, said that, “The responsibility to protect is the most important and imaginative doctrine to emerge on the international scene for decades.” Anne-Marie Slaughter from Princeton University has called it “…the most important shift in our conception of sovereignty since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. ”

The UN General Assembly endorsed the principle of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) in 2005. The Security Council unanimously reaffirmed the principle in Resolution 1674 in 2006. The head of the UNHRC mission to Darfur, Jodie Williams, used it to evaluate the government of Sudan’s performance, finding that the government had “manifestly failed” in its responsibility to protect its citizens. Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon used R2P in relation to their diplomatic efforts to resolve the post-election conflict in Kenya.


predator drone

The origins of R2P go back to 1993. The then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed Francis Deng, a well-respected former Sudanese diplomat, as his Special Representative on IDPs (Internally Displaced People). As wars became less a matter of conflict between states and more a struggle between forces within states, so the number of internally displaced increased. Remaining within national borders, IDPs were afforded no special international protection of the kind offered to refugees and so they were vulnerable to the sovereign state.

The following principles emerged:

• A state has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. • The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfil its primary responsibility. • If the state manifestly fails to protect its citizens and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions and as a last resort, military intervention.

The immediate reason for R2P was the recognition that the international community had failed to respond to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Kofi Annan, who was Assistant Secretary-General at the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations at the time of the Rwandan genocide, acknowledged the international community’s failure. When he was Secretary General in 2000, Annan wrote the report We the Peoples. He posed the following questions: “if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica — to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?

There had been much debate about the legality of the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. In late 2001, the Canadian government created the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS).

The ICISS argued that six criteria should guide any form of military intervention: • Just cause – Is the threat a “serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings”? • Right intention – Is the main intention of the military action to prevent human suffering or are there other motives? • Final resort – Has every other measure besides military invention been taken into account? • Legitimate authority. • Proportional means – Are the minimum necessary military means applied to secure human protection? • Reasonable prospect – Is it likely that military action will protect human life, and are the consequences of this action sure not to be worse than no action at all?

At the third round table meeting of the ICISS in London, the phrase “responsibility to protect” was chosen as a way to avoid the “right to intervene” or “obligation to intervene” doctrines and yet keep a degree of duty to act to resolve humanitarian crises. The ICISS released its report Responsibility to Protect which advocated that state sovereignty is a responsibility, and that the international community could, as a last resort use military intervention to prevent “mass atrocities”.

The phrase did not immediately stick. At the World Summit in 2005, the member states included R2P in the Outcome Document. The next year, in April 2006, the UN Security Council formalized their support of the R2P by reaffirming the provisions of the paragraphs from the World Summit document. Several governments have argued that they did not, in fact, endorse the principle in 2005 and committed themselves only to further deliberation; and members of the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly (Administrative and Budget) resisted the appointment of a special adviser mandated only to develop the ‘concept’ of R2P and build consensus around it.

The committee eventually agreed to the appointment of Edward Luck, but insisted that the phrase R2P be removed from his job title. His surname turned out to be inappropriate. Luck was paid $1 a year for his services. At the UN as an assistant secretary-general, Luck, was primarily involved in conceptualizing, developing and advocating for R2P. From 2007 to 2011, Luck worked at the International Peace Institute, an independent policy research group in New York.

Luck took over as Dean of the Joan B Kroc (she was the third wife of Ray Kroc, who was the CEO of McDonald’s) School of Peace and Studies at the University of San Diego in August 2012. Luck resigned in October 2013 and is suing the University for loss of wages and damage to his reputation, and exemplary damages. His decisions were thwarted by high-level administrators and Provost, Julie Sullivan. She would not let him dismiss a subordinate who was circulating nude pictures. Female staff accused Luck of discriminating against them and being a poor manager. Sorting out Sudan seems simple in comparison to running the Kroc School.

Military interventions in Sierra Leone, Liberia, East Timor and Bosnia did improve the lives of the people there. Other interventions – for example, in Somalia – did not. There has been international disquiet about R2P and it has been widely suggested that it legitimizes non-consensual intervention, potentially without the sanction of the UN Security Council. Some critics of R2P allege that moral outrage and hysteria conceal the true strategic motives of interventions.

India’s UN Ambassador Singh Puri stated that the Libyan case gave R2P a bad name. “Arms were supplied to civilians without any consideration of its consequences, a no-fly zone was selectively implemented only for flights in and out of Tripoli and targeted measures were implemented insofar as they suited the objective of regime change”. The Russian and Chinese governments both issued statements to the effect that in their opinion R2P had been abused by the US as a pretext for regime change and that experience would make them extremely suspicious of any future Security Council resolutions invoking R2P.

Advocates of R2P claim that the only occasions where the international community will intervene in a state without its consent is when the state has abdicated its responsibilities as a sovereign jurisdiction by allowing mass atrocities to occur, or is committing them. There could be a worrying continuum. Interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, though not primarily humanitarian, eroded public support for military action. Some Syrians who oppose President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, remember Iraq and argue that the one thing worse than a cruel dictator is a sectarian civil war.

In his recent Groundviews piece, Michael Roberts demonstrates that the LTTE tried to engineer foreign intervention in Sri Lanka because of humanitarian concerns about civilian casualties and IDPs. Could US activity against Sri Lanka at UNHRC morph into R2P and attempted regime change?

Tamil protests vs SL-- HT





1 Comment

Filed under accountability, american imperialism, British imperialism, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, NGOs, politIcal discourse, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, rehabilitation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, UN reports, vengeance, violence of language, world events & processes

One response to “Is R2P “humanitarian intervention” a form of imperialism? and a shift from a frying pan into a fire?

  1. chandre DW

    The Indian Peace keeping Force intervention in Sri Lanka was an R2P operation , although it did not go through the UN, (as every one knows).
    This point of view has not been spelt out often enough. It was a failed R2P.

    The Indians are much closer to the Tamils and Sinhalese, than would ever be the case of NATO forces intervening in Africa or Asia or Eastern Europe. So, even where cultural overlap could have helped to do things smoothly, the R2P operation was a hideous failure.

    Civil wars are also internal “R2P” operations, when one group of people feel that they are being harmed, or being eradicated, and they take steps to “protect” their people, or their “homeland”, “language” etc. When some members of the Tamil-speaking diaspora claim genocide, they can actually feel so, and we need to accept the existence of such a psychological validation, even if removed from the actual ground situation.

    When the Inquisition intervened in the “holy land”, it was exercising the right to protect the Christian Pilgrims – an R2P act. When the British intervened in Ireland, they too were moving in to “protect”.

    Of course the legalese and the wording have changed..
    But a look back at history shows that every conflict has been nothing but R2P, as viewed by one party, or the other party. Every one of them has been very successful, as viewed by some victor, and every one of them has been a horrific injustice, as viewed by the vanquished. When the blundering, bureaucratic UN takes over the R2P job, there will be no real victors, and both sides would be the vanquished, as we see in Syria, Libya (and Iraq, the latter in spite of the UN, with the US intervening to remove the threat of WMD).

Leave a Reply