Global Policy Forum

Response to Gareth Evans' "The Responsibility to Protect: Holding the Line"


By Cathy Fitzpatrick

October 15, 2008

I'm personally made deeply uneasy by the RTP campaign, even though I participate in it, because I fear that we as NGOs overexposed ourselves by helping to create a norm we cannot sustain, that is beginning to seem like Xeno's Paradox.

There are two aspects to RTP that I think give it a "dark side" that continues to undermine it and make it particularly difficult for us to apply it effectively.

The first is that RTP was quite frankly and politically created as a solution to the problems implied by "Western imperialism" that had begun to accrue to the phrase "humanitarian intervention. At first, the winds of history were at the back of this phrase, with successes (at least seemingly, at least for a time) in conflicts like Kosovo and East Timor. But then came Darfur and Somalia again, and the phrase was no longer so handy.

I remember distinctly hearing the Russian legal scholar Boris Topornin rage that the concept of "humanitarian intervention" was tantamount to endorsing "human rights killing". The also concept acquired a kind of taint because of constant and shrill G77 drilling against it, not because of anything inherently wrong with the idea of making an intervention for humanitarian reasons, but because the proponents in the West were not without sin. The problem was that the West was at times selective or fault -- and the intervention didn't stick and developed all kinds of difficulties later (East Timor, and then of course Iraq and Afghanistan, which weren't explicitly undertaken in the name of humanitarian intervention anyway, although at times it has been invoked as a justification, i.e. bringing democracy, saving women's rights). Thus the first aspect of the "dark side" of the term for some, even its original boosters, was that it had to be undertaken by imperfect Western states, with flawed execution.

So then the Canadians, and some of the other friends of protection of civilians in armed conflict, and Francis Deng, the Sudanese special rapporteur on internally displaced and then later genocide, came up with this other term. Deng, in particular, would speak eloquently about the idea of making states responsible to protect their own citizens. It was a way that he could get a foot into the door of even the world's worst hellholes, like Chechnya or Darfur, by saying that he was there to help states be states, to shore them up, to empower them, to let them know that nobody would be deliberately unseating them or intervening against them, but merely asking them to do what they should do for their subjects.

And there's the second dark aspect of the term, that it required a kind of gimmick, to tell states that you know are themselves responsible for massive civilian deaths not by accident, or lack of capacity, but by design, that they can stay in charge and presumably "protect" the people they were busy massacring a minute ago. This shill of RTP in this circumstance is undertaken with the best of motives and the worst of desperation -- trying to get into terrible zones of conflict to save lives -- but it leads to bad faith, and tocollusion, where we all pretend that "RTP" is a state's prerogative to be encouraged even in the face of the Big Lie, and where we pretend that a state "failing to protect" lacks, oh, sufficient equipment, or technical assistance to do the right thing.

Thus in reality, to enforce this concept of RTP, we have to keep undermining it, by asking those not fit to undertake it to enforce it, and enforce it with those who only undertake it in bad faith.

In reality, the Security Council members will tell you that they simply cannot make up a list of absolutes and generics and globalist premises that will enable them to invoke RTP in every case. They want to look at it on a case-by-case basis -- which essentially means more often than not, "not at all". For example in Sudan, where you'd think that RTP would eminently apply, they don't apply it -- it's not needed, it's not helpful, it's irrelevant.

Then comes a situation like Burma, when the West came make the case that it is not only bad faith, it is not only a junta bent on maintaining its total control and isolation, but an actual lack of capacity, so that even a military ship is warranted, because that's what can do the job. And so suddenly, we NGOs, who are keen to prevent suffering, and who were already working for democracy, appear to endorse militarization of humanitarianism, which we are in fact against, and appear to call for that "human rights killing" which so bothered Topornin. (I could add that somehow, the Dostoyevskian child's tear, for whose sake you would not start a violent revolution, was seldom a deterrent, and the idea of a "just war" does not seem relevant to him.)

The two problems I've identified of the "dark side" of RTP aren't the two weaknesses you identity -- overbroad application and overnarrow application -- rather, they are what occurs *when applying it*. But the reality is that neither "broad" nor "narrow" applications are actually made, except to get the "dialogue" going -- they are not being applied *as interventions* (if you can think of an actual situation in which it has been invoked *and* applied, provide one -- I just am not aware of any).

At this point, you have even more bad faith around the term -- people applying it retroactively, as an act undertaken by the Vietnamese in Cambodia, or currently, as an act applied by the Russians in Southern Ossetia against Georgia. Protection wasn't really the goal, and so not a lot of protection gets done in these kinds of situations.

We all grasp that we cannot invade Darfur. The U.S. is not going to launch a *third* front against an Islamic country, after Iraq and Afghanistan. Absolutely out of the question. It isn't even that the U.S. has a double game, "needing" Sudan for the "war on terror". It's that another invasion is just not on. The EU doesn't seem to have the appetite, and certainly Russia or China or South Africa would never taken it on, given their ideology against intervention, against forcibly demanding accountability, and for only accepting African-negotiated initiatives to end conflicts.

I'm baffled, then, as to what a "voluntary protection force" would be like. IFOR? But there *is* a voluntary protective force. It's called "UNAMIS". It has trouble deploying and even protecting itself, let alone civilians. Is there some notion that, say, a French-led force would somehow change those dynamics?

So why are we continuing to call for it in Darfur, asking Western leaders who can't apply it without adding to their global war against Islam, or asking the Government of Sudan to apply it, which is busy shelling the people it is supposed to protect?

Given your own explanation of why RTP couldn't take hold in Burma (international relief workers were let in before any real judgement call could be made about a crime against humanity) or in Russia (disingenuous, criteria not met), where *do* you think it can take hold?

At this juncture, I think you really have to ask why we should be calling on NGOs to "campaign hard" on this principle. Because we got it stated not in a detailed, binding treaty, but by the GA during the 2005 summit as a kind of declarative? What is this going to offer us -- or more importantly, the people really facing the loss of their lives or livlihoods in conflict? If we continue only to rack up cases where it is "too hard" to apply or "inappropriate" to apply, for what are we retaining this shining norm? Where? Norms are good when you can apply them, not just endlessly invoke them.

We already have so many ideal, shining norms that are honoured only in the breach. We didn't require "RTP" to engage in "never again" as we have the genocide treaty and all the other treaties. I wonder if we would not do better to retire this frenetic, hortatory, losing campaign around a slogan, and focus more on the existing treaties that accomplish much the same thing, by which states are bound and regularly reviewed for compliance.
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