TOPICS: When nations kill their own

Gareth Evans

At the height of the bloody suppression by the Burma (Myanmar) regime of protesting monks last year, the heated question was whether the international community should intervene. In response, a well-known Chinese professor told an American newspaper “China used tanks to kill people on Tiananmen Square. It is Myanmar’s sovereign right to kill their people, too.”

That is about as chilling and abhorrent a statement as it gets for many in developed countries.

It’s an apparent apologia not only for Tiananmen and the October crackdown, but the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda, the bloody massacre of Srebrenica, and the crimes against humanity continuing in Darfur.

The statement reflects a feeling that seems to ignore the developments in international human rights law since 1945 — from the Universal Declaration and the Covenants, to the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. And it seems to embrace the starkest possible interpretation of Westphalian principles; not only that what happens within state borders is nobody else’s business, but that sovereignty is a licence to kill.

To try to resolve this tension the concept of “the responsibility to protect,” or R2P, was devised as a new rallying cry to replace the call for “the right to intervene.” The core of R2P is that sovereign states should retain the primary responsibility to protect their own people from mass atrocities.

The R2P concept was proposed by a Canadian-sponsored international commission in 2001, and it took only four years — just a blink of an eye in the history of ideas — for the principles to be adopted, without dissent, by the UN General Assembly. But celebration remains premature: It is one thing to have a new norm of international behaviour up in lights, quite another for it to be genuinely universally accepted. The international community’s immediate response — and by diplomatic rather than military means — to the post election explosion of ethnic violence in Kenya at the beginning of this year was an excellent example of the new norm. But other cases, like the Burma cyclone and the Russian invasion of Georgia, have been either prematurely labelled or mislabelled as R2P ones.

Three big challenges remain for like-minded governments and civil society organisations who understand and accept the power of the R2P norm: First there is the conceptual one of ensuring that its scope and limits are fully understood, so that it is not seen as either too broad to be useful or too narrowly militarily focused to be acceptable. Second, there is the institutional one, of ensuring diplomatic, civilian, and military capacity is available to respond effectively to new situations.

And last, there is the political one of ensuring that, when preventive or reactive action becomes necessary, the will is there to mobilise that capacity. If we are never again to have to say “never again,” these challenges simply have to be met.