Friday, June 20, 2008

Passing the buck and rocking the boat

Via David T, here’s the new House of Commons Library research paper [PDF] on the ‘Responsibility to Protect’.

The Responsibility to Protect is an emerging doctrine designed to provide an international framework of protection for civilians facing mass atrocities. … The Responsibility to Protect is a three-fold duty: to prevent, to react and to rebuild. This three-fold duty falls by default to the state concerned but should be assumed by the international community whenever there is a “manifest failure” of the state to discharge its responsibilities to its citizens

Given the UN’s founding on the principle of state sovereignty, the adoption of this principle by a UN summit in 2005 was quite a step – although, of course, it’s slightly easier to adopt principles than to actually do stop bad people doing bad things.

The most controversial element of the doctrine is the idea that the international community, authorised by the UN Security Council, could mount a military intervention in order to stop mass atrocities.

Controversial indeed, but think about the contrary view: it’s not exactly motherhood and apple pie to say that actually, on reflection, tyrants should be left to inflict whatever atrocities they like on their own people within their own borders.

Once you accept that protecting civilians from mass atrocities is important, then the question of what happens when a government is not protecting but butchering sections of its populace becomes pressing. In the case of such “manifest failure”, then the government in question forfeits any legitimacy it has to wield the nation’s sovereignty, and so that bar against military intervention (if the best viable option) is lifted.

It remains unclear whether in the event of Security Council paralysis, a unilateral intervention would prove legitimate or legal.

Legal, I’m pretty sure not. But legitimate? Well: once we establish the principle that “manifest failure” to protect civilians can mean a forfiture of legitimate authority, so that the UN can get involved in a nation’s purely domestic matters, surely the multilateralists have (morally, at least) sold the pass. The UN, of course, is occasionally susceptible to failure (to put it mildly). In cases when the UN manifestly fails to assume the protective responsibility that a brutal national government has manifestly failed to keep, then legitimacy passes away from the UN. Where it then may go cannot, by definition, be a matter for the UN to decide.

It might be countered that when the UN fails this way, the concept of legitimacy dissolves. But if so, then so does that of illegitimacy. Speaking of which:

There is considerable debate over the status and scope of the Responsibility to Protect. On balance, most observers and states believe that it remains a political commitment and has not yet acquired legal force.

Hmm: legal or political? The trouble is that international law, both as a general principle and at the specifics of Security Council resolutions, is based on politics. UN decisions just are the decisions of its members. What a group of governments decides to allow or forbid reflects primarily a confluence of their own interests; the fulfilment of higher principles is incidental.

All that staying within international law and the due process of its institutions gives you is consensus. And all that ‘legitimacy’ really amounts to is… consensus (but perhaps of a less formal sort). Consensus certainly has its virtues, but they only go so far. And when majority opinion is in the wrong, consensus can become a vice.

No comments: