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Protecting Civilians Responsibly

In Project Syndicate (Worldwide Distribution), 25 October 2013    

BEIJING – Would China ever be willing to host an international policy discussion about the conditions that would legitimize invading another country to stop genocide or other mass-atrocity crimes from being committed within its borders? Given China’s long history of antagonism to “interference in internal affairs” in general, and to “humanitarian intervention” in particular, and in view of its contribution to the UN Security Council’s long paralysis over much less coercive measures in Syria, you would be in good company if you answered, “No.” But you would be wrong.

I have just been at a two-day meeting in Beijing that wrestled with just this topic. The meeting, hosted by the foreign ministry’s think tank, the China Institute of International Studies, brought together specialist scholars and practitioners from China and the other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa). And this month, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy will host a conference in Moscow, with local and international experts discussing the same subject.

Both meetings are, to my knowledge, the first of their kind. The fact that they are happening at all – and, if my Beijing experience is any guide, in a constructive, problem-solving spirit – is an encouraging development.

Although no outcome was formally agreed or made public, several themes emerged from the Beijing meeting. Taken together, they offer reason for confidence that it may be possible to recreate international consensus, so long missing in Syria, about how to deal with the hardest mass-atrocity cases.

First, there was widespread acceptance that the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, unanimously agreed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, is here to stay. R2P recognizes that sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their people from genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes; that other states have a responsibility to assist them to do so; and that if a state is “manifestly failing” to protect its people, the wider international community has a responsibility to step in with “timely and decisive action,” which might in an extreme case include military action if approved by the UN Security Council.

True, some Chinese scholars remain inclined to argue that the entire R2P enterprise – particularly its sanction of military action in exceptional cases– is just “old neo-interventionist wine in a new bottle.” But this did not appear to be a majority sentiment, nor did it stop anyone from engaging in lively discussion of how the R2P doctrine could be most effectively implemented in practice.

Second, there was widespread agreement about what had caused the breakdown of consensus in the Security Council concerning how to respond to events in Syria (at least until the use of chemical weapons in August proved to be a game changer). The cause was not an attempt by the global South to revive outdated notions of unlimited sovereignty; rather, it was a reaction to the perceived overreach of the NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011.

The Security Council’s three Western permanent members – France, the United Kingdom, and the United States (the P3) – had sought and been given a limited mandate to protect civilians, specifically invoking R2P. But they were perceived as then ruthlessly pursuing full-scale regime change, without securing any further agreement from the Council. If the P3 (now often privately, and rather more acerbically, described as FUKUS) were going to take a mile after being given an inch, then no more inches would be offered.

Third, and most important, there was widespread agreement about how consensus within the Security Council on the hardest cases might be recreated. The idea was that R2P should be “enriched” by the acceptance of a complementary principle, called “Responsible Protection.” Floated by the Chinese scholar Ruan Zongze in a journal article last year, and evidently the subject of much internal discussion since, Responsible Protection builds upon “Responsibility While Protecting,” an approach earlier proposed by Brazil that has already gained some traction at the UN.

The core elements of Responsible Protection, as articulated by Chinese participants in the Beijing debate, won strong support around the table. Tough criteria – specifically, legitimate intention, last resort, proportionality, and balance of consequences – should be clearly satisfied before any military mandate is granted, with every effort made to exhaust diplomatic solutions before more robust alternatives are embraced. There should be better methods of supervision and accountability to ensure that the “protection” objective remains at the heart of any response. And the primary emphasis of the entire R2P enterprise should continue to be prevention of mass-atrocity crimes – both their occurrence and their recurrence.

Some in the P3 and elsewhere will see all of this as a mere spoiling operation with a more sophisticated face. But they will do so at their peril. The idea of Responsible Protection – like the Brazilian initiative that preceded it – reflects genuinely and widely felt concerns. If not addressed, they will make Security Council resolutions in support of military action in R2P cases almost impossible to obtain in the future.

It remains to be seen whether China – and the other BRICS countries – will now move to champion the idea of Responsible Protection in a formal way. If they do, it should not be viewed as a rearguard action designed to undermine the R2P norm, but rather an effort to assume co-ownership of it. In terms of getting serious about saying “never again” to mass-atrocity crimes, that is about as positive a development as anyone could hope for.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013. www.project-syndicate.org

This article is available online at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/on-moves-by-china-and-other-brics-countries-to-embrace-humanitarian-intervention-by-gareth-evans