Kofi Annan’s greatest achievement as UN secretary general was his deft steering of the UN General Assembly to accept the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine at the 2005 World Summit.

Rather than attempting the impossible task of rewriting the UN Charter, Annan got the assembled delegates to reinterpret it. The assembled government leaders declared that the threats to international peace and security that came under the organization’s remit included crimes against humanity, even when committed by a sovereign state within its borders.

Annan’s successor Ban Ki Moon is a staunch supporter of the concept of R2P. The report he delivered last week, as requested in 2005, framed the discussion in a way that precluded reopening the principle. But opponents at the General Assembly and their ideological allies outside were sedulously determined to weaken R2P in practice as much as possible.

The Chinese delegate, for instance, stood the whole concept on its head by declaring that the UN must not waver from “the principles of respecting state sovereignty and non-interference of internal affairs.” In contrast, Ban’s report referred with more nuance to the “abiding principles of responsible sovereignty.”

Debating R2P

To avert attempts to reverse the 2005 declaration R2P’s proponents, not least the UN secretariat, are keeping to a tightly written script. R2P isn’t the same as humanitarian intervention, they argue. Its three pillars are the responsibility of sovereign states to prevent crimes against their people, the responsibility of the international community to detect and avert such criminal situations, and the responsibility to apply varying degrees of coercion against the perpetrators from monitoring to sanctions to, if necessary, military intervention.

Proponents of R2P stress that only the UN Security Council can authorize such intervention. Ban Ki Moon’s report, however, does mention the General Assembly’s Uniting for Peace procedure, which the United States originally invoked to fight the Korean war in spite of the Soviet veto in the Security Council. Washington has since dismissed the procedure after the Palestinians used it to bypass the U.S. veto for Israel.

Humanitarian intervention — invoked by Hitler in the Sudetenland and Japan in Manchuria — is indeed a slippery and easily abused concept. Most recently, Tony Blair’s attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq as humanitarian intervention and Moscow’s attempt to invoke in Georgia the principle it denied in Kosovo show the dangers.

Of course, expediency is a global disease. Cuba, which sent Che Guevara to lead rebellions across the globe, is a determined advocate of national sovereignty. Ironically, some of the most determined upholders of state sovereignty are heirs to the Leninist tradition which, in the name of proletarian internationalism, took the Red Army variously to Warsaw, Budapest, and Hungary. One of the most vocal opponents is Hugo Chavez’s government, which has hardly been reticent to interfere in the politics of the neighbors.

Chomsky’s Intervention

The president of the General Assembly invited noted critic of U.S. foreign policy Noam Chomsky to address the audience on the issue of R2P. Chomsky quite rightly raised the question of why there was no intervention in East Timor or why the UN stood by as Israel attacked Lebanon and Gaza. However, he claimed that the NATO air raids on Serbia actually precipitated the worst atrocities in Kosovo. This latter claim isn’t only untrue but morally unpalatable in its spurious causality, like claiming that the British air raids on Germany precipitated the Nazi gas chambers. But at least Chomsky admitted that atrocities had taken place in Kosovo, which is much farther than some of his would-be acolytes have gone.

It also begs the question: Does Chomsky want international action to stop atrocities in Gaza, the Congo, or situations like Timor, or is he only opposed to “Western” interventions? Indeed, the astute delegate from Ghana took him to task for failing to address the principle of “noninterference.” The African Union’s charter specifically adopted “non-indifference.” Its charter includes the organization’s obligation to intervene.

Chomsky is quite right to point out the core weakness of the R2P proposals, which puts the onus of decision-making on the Security Council. The permanent five members of the Security Council (P5) use their veto power to protect their friends even as they accuse others of doing likewise. China protects Sudan, North Korea, and Zimbabwe, in the latter case following in British footsteps, since Britain vetoed resolutions on Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in times past. France covers for Morocco in Western Sahara. The United States has until now automatically covered for Israel, and Russia for Serbia. Britain and the United States were confident that they could use their vetoes to prevent their invasion of Iraq from appearing on the Security Council agenda just as Beijing ensures the exclusion of Taiwan from the UN and the issues of Tibet and the Uighurs from its agenda.

This expediency has given opponents of the R2P plenty of ammunition, even if their high-minded declarations about the sacredness of sovereignty tend to conceal an ugly, oligarchic self-interest. In effect, apologists for authoritarian sovereignty imply that they would happily let all murders go unchecked because some states get away with it. This argument boils down to saying that if the United States can do something, everybody else can as well, an anti-imperialism that ends up playing into the hands of leaders like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Fidel Castro, and Kim Jong Il. Despite their disparate ideologies, these authoritarian leaders share a deep rhetorical attachment to their countries’ national sovereignty combined with a cavalier disregard for the sovereignty of others, including their own citizenry.

The Problem of Implementation

While the 2005 summit overturned the principle that what governments did within their national borders was no one else’s concern, it has some way to go before achieving practical implementation. In fact, despite Bolivarian bluster from Venezuela and a few others, the real problem is not the possibility of a complaisant Security Council authorizing dubiously humanitarian interventions. The problem remains the paralysis of the body in the face of humanitarian disasters. In fact, conditioning the principle on reform of the Security Council is tantamount to making it contingent on pigs flying in formation past UN headquarters.

The possibility, the probability, and even better the certainty, of retribution would surely give pause to future leaders. The R2P principle will in the end come to life because of global public opinion forcing action. For example, even China was forced to moderate its support of Sudan in the face of international public opinion.

But Ban Ki Moon, who is tougher than his mild diplomatic manner may suggest, strongly reminded delegates that the “Secretary-General has an obligation to tell the Security Council — and in this case the General Assembly as well — what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear.” His report says that the Secretary General “must be the spokesperson for the vulnerable and the threatened when their Governments become their persecutors instead of their protectors or can no longer shield them from marauding armed groups,” and he singles out the P5, who “bear particular responsibility because of the privileges of tenure and the veto power they have been granted under the Charter. I would urge them to refrain from employing or threatening to employ the veto in situations of manifest failure to meet obligations relating to the responsibility to protect…and to reach a mutual understanding to that effect.”

Ban can do a great deal to foment that global opinion, and is giving every appearance of wanting to do so. While the U.S. press treats Ban as invisible, the rest of the world has leant him their ears. In a recent global poll, he was the second most trusted global figure after Obama. Only global public opinion can force the P5 to live up to their responsibilities — the first of which is to ensure that no regime, not even their close friends, has a guaranteed veto against international action.

The single most significant step the United States could take to disarm some of the critics is to reverse John Bolton’s dubiously legal “unsigning” of the Rome Treaty on the International Criminal Court. Washington can hardly call upon the Sudanese to respect the indictment of a court that it has refused to accept itself. To ensure greater global public support for R2P — and answer some of the legitimate charges of the doctrine’s critics — the United States must end its own double standards on international treaties and military intervention. Obama is more likely than any president in 40 years to make moves in that direction, so R2P has more of a future than it did a year ago.

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