The Washington Times

No, the U.N. General Assembly summit this month didn’t produce nearly as much agreement on reform as the world body needs. On the other hand, the World Summit Outcome document does have one big item in its favor.

That’s the completion of no less than a revolution in consciousness in international affairs by the adoption of what’s known as the “responsibility to protect.” The essence of responsibility to protect, as the document says, is this: “Each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The responsibility to protect doesn’t begin when the mass killing starts, but before: “This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means.” If a state fails to exercise its responsibility to protect its people, either through an inability to act effectively or through a government’s own malicious intent, then that state in essence forfeits any claims it may have to forbid others from interfering in its internal affairs so far as the protection function is concerned.

Under such circumstances, the U.N. summit concluded, “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.”

The language is not elegant, but the moral principle applied to all governments is: No mass killing and other atrocities on your territory; it is your job as sovereign power to prevent it or stop it. If you can’t do it on your own, the international community pledges to help you, and you had better be willing to accept whatever help is necessary to get the job done. If, however, you are the problem, then the international community is prepared to intervene as needed, by whatever means, including military means, to stop the atrocities. The standard is not the effort a government expends (or pretends to be expending), but actual effective protection of people at risk.

The need for such a principle in international affairs is perfectly clear, summed up by reference to such killing fields as Srebrenica, Rwanda, Kosovo and Darfur. The doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, a classical principle of international law, can serve as a double-sided excuse for inaction in the face of unspeakable crimes: First, as asserted by a state responsible for the perpetration of mass killings, to keep others out on the grounds that what’s going on is none of their business; second, as a convenient principle according to which outsiders may avert their eyes, excusing their inaction on the grounds that there is nothing they can legitimately do.

The responsibility to protect is not self-executing. Nations will be called upon to act in accordance with it, and whether they do so or not will be for them to decide when the time comes. But they are now on record with a powerful general statement to which they have assented as a guide to their conduct. It will be harder to excuse their inaction, even if they would prefer not to act.

I say the responsibility to protect is a revolution in consciousness in international affairs for two reasons. The first is that the concept de-centers the state as the actor par excellence in international relations in favor of people, actual human beings, who are not after all subject beyond question to the whims of their rulers. With the privileges of statehood, such as the principle of non-interference, come responsibilities, protection first among them. Any government attempting to assert the former while ignoring the latter, at the expense of its own people, is in danger of losing its privileges.

The second and related revolutionary element of responsibility to protect is that it de-territorializes the enforcement and protection of the rights of man, or human rights. It is not only your government, that which asserts its sovereign power over you who live within its jurisdiction, that will either act to protect or fail to protect your rights, starting with the most basic right, your right to live. Others are called upon to act to protect you when your government does not. Where formerly there was no recourse for you but to try to flee, now you have a claim on the international community at large.

I know that we are not yet in a world in which we can make good on all such claims. But with the adoption of the responsibility to protect, we are a step closer.