By Noam Chomsky
A debate is under way at the United Nations over a policy that may seem uncontroversial: an international framework to prevent severe crimes against humanity.
The framework is called “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, in U.N. parlance. A restricted version of R2P, adopted at the U.N. World Summit in 2005, reaffirmed rights and responsibilities that were accepted by member states in the past and sometimes implemented by them.
However, the discussions about R2P or its cousin, “humanitarian intervention,” are regularly disturbed by the rattling of a skeleton in the closet: history, to the present.
Throughout history, few principles of international affairs apply generally. One is the maxim of Thucydides that the strong do as they wish while the weak suffer as they must.
Another principle is that virtually every use of force in international affairs has been accompanied by lofty rhetoric about the solemn responsibility to protect the suffering populations, and factual justifications for it.
Understandably, the powerful prefer to forget history and look forward. For the weak, it is not a wise choice.
The skeleton in the closet made an appearance in the first dispute considered by the International Court of Justice 60 years ago, the Corfu Channel case about an incident involving Great Britain and Albania.
The court determined it “can only regard the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation of a policy of force, such as has, in the past, given rise to most serious abuses and such as cannot, whatever be the defects in international organization, find a place in international law…from the nature of things, (intervention) would be reserved for the most powerful states, and might easily lead to perverting the administration of justice itself.”
The same perspective informed the first meeting of the South Summit of 133 states in 2000. Its declaration, surely with the bombing of Serbia in mind, rejected “the so-called `right’ of humanitarian intervention, which has no legal basis in the United Nations Charter or in the general principles of international law.”
The wording reasserts the U.N. Declaration on Friendly Relations (1970). It has been repeated since, among others by the Ministerial Meeting of the Non-aligned movement in Malaysia in 2006, again representing the traditional victims in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arab world.
The same conclusion was drawn in 2004 by the high-level U.N. Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. The panel concluded that U.N. Charter “Article 51 needs neither extension nor restriction of its long-understood scope.”
The panel added, “For those impatient with such a response, the answer must be that, in a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk to the global order and the norm of nonintervention on which it continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted. Allowing one to so act is to allow all”-which is, of course, unthinkable.
The same basic position was adopted by the U.N. World Summit in 2005. The Summit also stated the willingness “to take collective action…through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter…should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations” from serious crimes.
At most, the phrase sharpens the wording of Article 42 on authorizing the Security Council to resort to force. And the phrase keeps the skeleton in the closet-if we can regard the Security Council as a neutral arbiter, not subject to the maxim of Thucydides.
That assumption, however, is untenable.
The Council is controlled by its five permanent members, and they are not equal in operative authority. One indication is the record of vetoes-the most extreme form of violation of a Security Council Resolution.
During the past quarter-century, China and France together vetoed 7 resolutions; Russia, 6; the United Kingdom, 10: and the United States, 45, including even resolutions calling on states to observe international law.
One way to mitigate this defect in the World Summit consensus would be to eliminate the veto, in accord with the will of the majority of the U.S. population. But such heresies are unthinkable, as much so as applying R2P right now to those who desperately need protection but are not on the favored list of the powerful.
There have been departures from the Corfu Channel restriction and its descendants. The Constitutive Act of the African Union asserts “The right of the Union to intervene in a Member State…in respect of grave circumstances.” That differs from the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS), which bars intervention “for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state.”
The reason for the difference is clear. The OAS Charter seeks to deter intervention by the United States, but after the disappearance of the apartheid states, the AU faces no similar problem.
I know of only one high-level proposal to extend R2P beyond the summit consensus and the AU extension: the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty on Responsibility to Protect (2001).
The commission considers the situation in which “the Security Council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time.” In that case, the report authorizes “action within area of jurisdiction by regional or sub-regional organizations…subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council.”
At this point, the skeleton in the closet rattles loudly. The powerful unilaterally determine their own “area of jurisdiction.” The OAS and AU cannot do so, but NATO can, and does.
NATO has determined that its “area of jurisdiction” extends to the Balkans, Afghanistan and beyond.
The expansive rights accorded by the International Commission are in practice restricted to NATO alone, violating the Corfu Channel principles and opening the door for R2P as a weapon of imperial intervention at will.
The “responsibility to protect” has always been selective. Thus it did not apply to the sanctions against Iraq imposed by the United States and United Kingdom and administered by the Security Council, condemned as “genocidal” by the distinguished diplomats in charge, both of whom resigned in protest.
There is also no thought today of applying R2P to the people of Gaza, a “protected population” for whom the United Nations is responsible.
And nothing serious is contemplated about the worst catastrophe in Africa, if not the world: the murderous conflict in eastern Congo. There, the BBC just reported, multinationals are once again accused of violating a U.N. resolution against illicit trade of valuable minerals-funding the violence.
Nor is R2P invoked to respond to massive starvation in the poor countries.
Several years ago UNICEF reported that 16,000 children die every day from lack of food, many more from easily preventable disease. The figures are higher now. In southern Africa alone it is Rwanda-level killing, not for 100 days, but every day. Action under R2P would be easy enough, were there the will.
In these and numerous other cases the selectivity conforms to the maxim of Thucydides and the expectations of the I.C.J. 60 years ago.
But the maxims that largely guide international affairs are not immutable, and, in fact, have become less harsh over the years as a result of the civilizing effect of popular movements.
For such progressive reform, R2P can be a valuable tool, much as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been.
Even though states do not adhere to the Universal Declaration, and some formally reject much of it (crucially including the world’s most powerful state), nonetheless it serves as an ideal that activists can appeal to in educational and organizing efforts, often effectively.
The discussion of R2P may be similar. With sufficient commitment, unfortunately not yet detectable among the powerful, it could be significant indeed.