Posted by: sean | September 28, 2005

A step backward on genocide

Earlier this month, the UN released the outcome of the 2005 World Summit, whose goal was to reform the Organization in several different domains. The main issues were development, terrorism, the peace-building commission, genocide prevention, human rights, Secretariat reform, Security Council reform and disarmament and non-proliferation.

Many nations, and the Secretariat itself, seemed disappointed with the final document (pdf), which, as any document agreed upon by nearly 200 countries, was necessarily a compromise. The 40-page document spent only half a page on genocide, but one could be forgiven for thinking that those two paragraphs made a big difference after listening to Kofi Annan’s address (text or video) to the General Assembly:

For the first time, you will accept, clearly and unambiguously, that you have a collective responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. You will make clear your willingness to take timely and decisive collective action through the Security Council, when peaceful means prove inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their own populations. Excellencies, you will be pledged to act if another Rwanda looms.

When reading the final document, however, one is much less optimistic. Mr. Annan expressed satisfaction and seems convinced that the problem of the international community’s chronic inaction when faced with genocide has been solved. The actual text, however, tells another story altogether:

Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity

138. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.

139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.

These two paragraphs were born from a Canadian initiative, called The Responsibility to Protect. In his speech before the General Assembly, Canadian Prime Minister Martin said (text or video), “Too often, we have debated the finer points of language while innocent people continue to die. Darfur is only the latest example.”

However, the final text from the World Summit differs in no small degree from the conclusions of its parent document, the 2001 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which, on the initiative of the of the Government of Canada, was charged with addressing the thorny issues implicated by “military intervention for human protection purposes.”

The report concluded that “state sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself,” and that when a state is either unable or unwilling to stop “serious harm” suffered by its population, “the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.” The report then goes on to describe this responsibility to protect as being threefold, comprised of the responsibilities to prevent, react and rebuild. The responsibility to react includes “coercive measures like sanctions and international prosecution, and in extreme cases military intervention.”

ICISS’s 90-page report went much further than this month’s World Summit, under pressure from states like Zimbabwe, Cuba, the U.S., Iran, Syria and Venezuela, was prepared to go. Granted, the ICISS document has its faults, which are inextricably linked to fundamental problems of the U.N. in general and the Security Council in particular. The main problem being that it relies on the five permanent members of the Security Council to agree not to use their veto power to block military interventions in cases of genocide. It does, however, offer an often overlooked alternative to the Security Council: the General Assembly’s Uniting for Peace procedure, which was adopted in 1950 by the Security Council as Resolution 377 and resolves,

that if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

In any case, the Summit’s final text falls very short of the ICISS report’s conclusions. First of all, the Summit text sets up a state’s responsibility to protect its own population without taking the second and crucial step of making a state’s sovereignty conditional on its fulfilling that responsibility. Stressing a state’s responsibility without agreeing that a failure to live up to that responsibility will necessarily result in a loss of sovereignty means nothing at all. It is essentially the same as telling a murderer that it is his responsibility to not kill without asserting that his freedom as a citizen will be suspended if he chooses not to live up to this responsibility.

Second, the Summit text implies that the international community’s responsibility to protect ceases at the exhaustion of peaceful means. Beyond “appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means,” stopping genocide ceases to be an obligation. There is a stark language shift, which says that the international community is

prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council … on a case-by-case basis … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Concretely, this means that once the international community has exhausted peaceful means, it is no longer responsible for intervening in order to stop genocide. This is a far cry from ICISS’s responsibility to react and Mr. Annan’s claim that the international community “will be pledged to act if another Rwanda looms.”

There is a fair amount of debate about whether or not the 1948 Genocide Convention legally binds signatory states to stop genocide. And while the UN Secretariat’s commentary on the first draft of that convention stated that the Convention “should bind the States to do everything in their power to support any action by the United Nations intended to prevent or stop these crimes,” in the end, negotiations by the signatory states softened the language and deleted references like the obligation to report acts of genocide to the Security Council.

It is a disgrace that nearly 60 years later, after having experienced the shame of watching silently as 800,000 Rwandans were mercilessly slaughtered, we have yet to make any progress on keeping our oft repeated promise of “never again.” If anything, after this month’s UN 2005 World Summit, we seem to have taken a step backward.

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