R2P and the UN Security Council

February 16, 2009

The failure to elicit an effective humanitarian response to the Darfur Crisis from the UN Security Council demonstrates a fatal loophole in the mechanism of putting the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) into practice.  The world promised “never again” after the Rwandan genocide, yet R2P’s over-reliance on the UN Security Council means the promise will likely remain empty for Darfur.

In the case of Darfur, it is no longer necessary to dispute whether the incidents are eligible to be termed as genocide or crime against humanity. A state’s claim to sovereignty must build upon its ability to protect its own civilians and uphold a minimal level of human rights. When a state fails to protect its people from massive loss of life and mass starvation, when there are credible claims that hundreds and thousands of helpless women are being raped by armed forces, when foreign and domestic humanitarian aid workers are not entitled to safe passage, these circumstances legitimize humanitarian intervention and the deployment of peacekeeping forces.

When claims of “violation of sovereignty” are being used as a reason not to intervene during such a humanitarian crisis, it is merely an excuse exposing a lack of willingness to act.  Do UN security council members possess the political will to act?  When the conflicts in Sudan offer no strategic importance to the US, why bother? That’s why until now no government has stood out to advocate humanitarian intervention in Darfur.  Not the US, as they are engaging in two wars of terror. Not China, a nation depending partly on access to Sudan’s resources.

Despite the fact that the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine was adopted in the UN General Assembly, if the major players of the Security Council lack the willingness to support humanitarian intervention, especially when their economic or political interests are threatened, the doctrine would just become paperwork to be quoted by others.  Are the permanent members in the Security Council given too much discretion over controlling when humanitarian forces intervene?  Could this problem be solved if the Secretary General was given more authority to approve humanitarian interventions?

By Miu and Joe

Sources: MacFarlane, N.S., Thielking, C.J., Weiss, T.G. (2004). “The Responsibility to Protect: Is Anyone Interested in Humanitarian Intervention?”  Third World Quarterly, 25 (5), pp. 977-992


12 Responses to “R2P and the UN Security Council”

  1. Paul-F. Says:

    Thanks Miu and Joe for your post.

    As you mention, ‘these circumstances legitimize humanitarian intervention and the deployment of peacekeeping forces’, but this is only true from the perspective of a Western liberal democracy. As many have pointed out in previous comments China is not willing to accept the R2P doctrine, much less to put it into practice. Moreover, even if China had no interests at all in the region it is very doubtful that China would be proactive in the conflict in Darfur.

    However, it would be unfair to blame China or any other non-democratic nation for adopting a passive attitude when the western democracies are themselves waiting for the conflict to solve itself. As you mention, ‘When the conflicts in Sudan offer no strategic importance to the US, why bother?’ R2P is an ethical perspective, a moral principle that is too often too far from reality. R2P is indeed the best, or even the only, adequate moral stand but its scholars and advocate lack the pragmatic view on the matter. Furthermore, the air of triumphalism of certain R2P advocates, such as Evans in his book ‘the Responsibility to Protect’, remain precocious in my opinion. In an era in which whimsical public opinions change drastically with a 1 minute report from CNN, elected officials are still responsible for their soldiers and accountable through elections. I completely agree that intervention is a necessary measure in these types of conflicts. Nevertheless, we should not forget that interventions come at a price. There are good days and bad days in violent conflicts, but usually bad days come with a body count. In practice, the image of the bodies of British soldiers on BBC1 would drastically reduce public support the same way it would in any other country. Somalia did it for the US regarding Rwanda. Elected officials do need to take that into account and one has to wonder what part of the responsibility comes from the public itself who does not stand behind those decisions, or not for long. Therefore the failure of the UN to act is, in my view, more than a ‘loophole’

    For those who argue that force would only be needed in extreme cases I think it is a reminder that deterrence is a vital tool in IR, especially in violent conflicts. Empty gestures or a toothless UN, as it currently is, cannot prevent conflict if the parties know they are hollow threats. Moreover, it seems to me that the fact that the UN has adopted the R2P doctrine but does not enforce it only weakens its authority.

    As said above, R2P is, from my point of view, the only acceptable moral stand on events such as genocides. Nevertheless, knowing that it is the moral high is not enough, now its advocates need to come up with pragmatic actions on how to implement it.

  2. thirru Says:

    I do have to agree with Paul on this, from a moral point of view R2P seems like a reasonable policy and the sovereignty of one state should not protect violence of the government against its own people. But as you guys have pointed out the enforcement of R2P is far from reality and the UN (and especially the security council) would first have to undergo reform process before there would be even a glimse of a chance for intervention to succeed, as there will be always people (and governments) who have an interest to keep the war in another country going.
    I also tend to agree that especially liberal democracies are more vulnerable to public opinion than autocratic governments for obvious reasons and obviously two extremly unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has made intervention for powers such as America extremely difficult.
    However, I do think that grassroot movements since 2003/2004 have shown that there is public demand for an intervention in Darfur for instance.
    Apart from moral values we may also not overlook other implications. A failure of intervention (and adequate development support) in Somalia has shown us that, in the long run, it will affect other powers as well (e.g. piracy, kidnappings, destabilizing neighbouring countries, etc).
    Later or no intervention at all will often come at a higher price eventually. Personally I must say however, politicians will only start acting once situations are starting to seriously escalate (see current economic crisis) and are affecting their direct interests.

    P.s. I liked your remark about America’s wars OF terror. 😉

  3. Paul-F. Says:

    I completely agree with what you said about the dangers in the long run as in Somalia with piracy and other examples you gave. But that’s precisely the problem, we do not consider the long run. If politicians or leaders had their views set on the long run the global warming issue would have been tackled seriously by now. Moreover, the lack of long-term decision-making is not only a political problem but a way of life entrenched in all of us. In my view the financial crisis is precisely proof of that, we want more, better, faster and now! This is arguable but I believe it is part of the problem when tackling R2P as it needs a long term perspective.
    However I think you pointed out a very interesting point. It is in the interest of all of us that Somalia does well so our ships can go through and terrorism is not harvested. Maybe that is the key. I do not pretend that R2P is the best solution since I have said above, to me it is the correct moral stand. Nevertheless, in order to get states to act on violent conflicts to appeal the national interest (e.g. threat of piracy, kidnapping, region stability, etc) might be a better argument or pretext to save lives and achieve human security.
    One last point I wanted to clarify since you pointed out that ‘there is public demand for an intervention in Darfur’. I agree that public support can be gathered my problem is that with the first national casualties it would quickly crumble. This is not to say that public opinion should be a factor in deciding if an intervention is necessary or not. Quite the contrary, I believe that leaders should ‘lead’ and not follow public opinion. What I mean by this is that governments should educate their populations in order to gather public support and explain that it is the ‘right’ thing to do. Not to run away or even use public opinion to excuse themselves from saving 800.000 lives as with Rwanda.

  4. Paul-F. Says:

    How do you edit typos??
    It should have read:

    I do not pretend that R2P is NOT the best solution since, as I have said above, to me it is the correct moral stand.

  5. thirru Says:

    Definitely. The public expects humanitarian intervention to be more something like a pop corn movie, go in, watch it for 60min and then expect a happy ending. The reality is that NATO forces have been in Afghanistan for more than 7 years already and Bosnia and Herzegovina still need to be protected by an EUFOR military deployment. I think the media does play a certain role in there as well. What I would like to ask the posters is whether they really believe that it would be such a visa idea if the Secretary General would be given such great power of deciding whether to intervene or not and if that would be even feasible, given the fact that the UN does not posses any house own forces and has to rely on its members for that particulary issue.

  6. Paul-F. Says:

    I think it’s a great question but as you start to point out yourself there are two issues.
    1-should the SG have that power?
    2-is it even feasible???

    I personally don’t think this kind of decisions should depend on one person only. A single decision maker would be open to much more crticism than a multilateral or common decision-making process. The SG would easily be accused of being biased, protect his interests and a huge list of etc.

    On the second aspect I think the answer is clearly no. As you pointed out the UN does not have a real military force which brings to the table issues not only of sovereignty but also willingness to particiapte in certain opertions. how would it work? could troops from a specific country refuse to take part in operation A but not B? Where would you get the manpower? this would be a long debate 😉

    I like the thought though!

  7. Aaed Kayal Says:

    miuyim thats not the point

  8. thirru Says:

    Paul that’s exactly what I mean, I didn’t raise the question, the posters did. But I personally don’t think such a great power should be vested in one person.

  9. Paul-F. Says:

    Sorry Thirru I thought you were arguing in favour of what the poster said. I guess we agree on most of it the 😉

    Miuyim: it might not be the point but it’s a discussion. he raised a good point and we talked about it. What’s the harm??

  10. dmitces Says:

    Paul and Thirru, your discussion over the possible negative implications of non-intervention, brings up an eternal and regrettably practically insolvable dilemma of ‘what would happen if…’ There is no doubt that state-leaders as any pragmatic individuals would not hesitate to introduce only those strategies that in the long run would not be disadvantageous for their states. However, as it is said, generals are always preparing for the previous battle, as there are many factors, in fact obstacles, at present time that prevent those policies from being implemented. It is not only the need to address public opinion but also strategic miscalculations and possible individual views prevalent within the given establishment that impact upon the political sphere of a country.

    For instance, in his article on applicability of R2P with regard to the recent events in Georgia (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-evans31-2008aug31,0,5576279.story), Gareth Evans elucidates the central problem of the principle when he suggests that any state ought to appeal to the Security Council before launching a full-fledged intervention. He also identifies recommendations issued by the SC as sufficient pressure for an actor to review its tactics and [temporarily] curtail its attacks. At the same time, there is ample factual evidence that illustrates:
    1) SC’s inability to produce instant solutions
    2) aggressors’ neglect of international opinion unless real force is applied

    The author accredits R2P ‘to prevent another Cambodia or Rwanda,’ however, he seems to simulate a post-factum situation thus twisting the principle down to a tool to prevent further deterioration of an already existing conflict simultaneously denying its preventive function. The interpretation of this scenario in real terms transforms into a demand for certain critical mass that a conflict needs gather in order to provide the international community with enough time for multilateral debates over the legitimacy of intervention. The question that is put aside is how many casualties that critical mass must consist of.

    Yet, I would not be able to give a clear answer whether the right to ratify intervention should be reformed. I neither like the idea of a single person provided with such responsibility but, taking into consideration some states currently sinking in blood of their own citizens, I could agree that due to the prevalence of personal interests, the UN in its current incarnation lacks both, sufficient speed and consensus in its decision-making process. Therefore, its strictly partial effectiveness as an international body appears to be dreadfully distanced from the aims that were set initially. The reform of the Security Council that is in the air at the moment might be a possible solution for the problem; however it still raises questions of quality and quantity as to the amount of states that should be allowed to the Council on permanent/temporary basis, breadth of their mandates and credentials that the upgraded body should be equipped with.

    -Dmitrij Cesniuk

  11. jositohku Says:

    Paul-F, Thirru & Dmitrij Cesniuk, thank you for your replies.

    We would like to make a few points here.

    We think that R2P provides a universal moral standard to all. At least we think the principles are, not only from the perspective of a Western liberal democracy, applied to all races, nationality, etc…. Moral principles are not always far from reality, as R2P protects people from the very fundamental needs here.

    State-leaders are not willing to accept the R2P doctrine due to their interests (In Darfur it’s the bilateral relations of China & Sudan, or even US over Iraq war). The point here would be understandable: we consider the failure of the UN to act is caused by the collective decision making error. The politicians have difficulties in making their decisions too (as Dmitrij said too), therefore they cannot all the time have common interest that all the nations share a common goal in one particular issue.

    We think that in the UN, a decision making mechanism ought to be formed, as in the Security Council it usually involves national political interests of certain nations that dominates the judgement. However the involvement of regional organisations, such as African Union, or NGOs reflects the true scenes and severity of situations. And this may offer balanced and comprehensive views could come onto surface during discussions, and the relevant parties may even take part in decision making process.

    Miu & Joe

  12. Marianne Says:

    Dear Niu and Joe,

    I find the discussions that you started very interesting. It seems fair to say that the veto of the permanent five is the reason behind the debates of the efficiency and legitimacy of UN. And I enjoy reading about the different suggests on how to make UN act in accordance with the R2P principles.

    However, a change in the power structure of the SC is highly unlikely, as the P5 would have to agree with it. As long as the institutional structure of the international society is based on the realist thought with states survivel in focus, it appears to be impossible for any state to give up a veto power.

    Therefore, I would like to ask how/if SC to intervene in humanitarian crisis when needed without a change in the power structure of UN? I know this is an unfair/impossible question to raise. But it seems to me necessary to focus on the institution we have and not the institution we ought to have.

    That said, I understand why its important to discuss alternatives in order for change to occur. However, if we hope to avoid humanitarian crisis in the near future I think we need to focus on how to create political will in the SC. This could be done through economic or social incentives. It is still a diffecult task, but not as hard as changing the power structure of the SC or the international society as a whole.

    Thank you for a good discussion

    All the best,

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