Columns -Thoughts from London

Genuine concern or ruse to interfere

By Neville de Silva

Mention R2P, the international shorthand for Responsibility to Protect and people blow hot and cold. In Sri Lanka it would be mainly hot. Particularly so after former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans’ Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture last year when he introduced R2P to a Sri Lankan audience as head of the International Crisis Group that is in the forefront of the advocacy of this concept.

If the Evans lecture raised hackles in Colombo, the problem was compounded by the chairing of the meeting by Rama Mani, the executive director of the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) who had apparently invited Evans . Mani was seen as the root of all evil and eventually evicted from Sri Lanka for what some saw as her tie up with the R2P project.

I was not in Colombo for the Gareth Evans lecture. But more than a year later I had the opportunity of listening to him on the same subject at a panel discussion at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London last week. Apart from having heard it from the horse’s mouth as it were, it was a formidable panel because all three members on it were closely connected with ICG or in the negotiations that led to the formulation of the concept. Besides Gareth Evans who I had interviewed a number of times when I was working in Hong Kong, there was Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong and an old friend and David Hannay, a former British Ambassador to the UN.

Obviously R2P is an important issue for Sri Lanka. Given the international attention on the country in its current war against the LTTE, the criticism of Sri Lanka’s human rights record and the humanitarian concerns raised over the status of civilians caught up in the conflict, some see R2P as a stalking horse for international intervention in the country. That is all the more reason one expected some representative from the Sri Lankan High Commission in London to have attended the panel discussion. Sadly and surprisingly there was none. The High Commission did not either know of it or had other priorities.

Having read the attacks on Gareth Evans after his speech in Colombo and having now listened to him in London where he was launching his book on the subject, I was left wondering whether his words were misunderstood, deliberately misinterpreted or there are lacunae in the concept and its application in real life situations that need to be more clearly articulated if it is to gain wider international currency and acceptance. If R2P is deliberately being distorted in some quarters, as its advocates suspect, it is all the more reason why its principles should be more clearly defined, refined and confined to a narrower area of concern.

What has provoked attacks on R2P appears to be the limitation that it places on state sovereignty. It states that sovereignty can be superseded by intervention by the international community in response to catastrophic human rights violations. These would include genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. In the words of both Gareth Evans and Chris Patten, the Westphalian approach to state sovereignty is outdated in a more complex world as it is today of international relations, obligations and responsibilities.

One reason why there is concern and deep suspicion in the global south is the fear that R2P is hacking away at the foundations of state sovereignty thereby opening the doors for more powerful nations to intervene in the affairs of smaller or less powerful nations in the name of the international community. Gareth Evans refutes that, saying it is the state that must be primarily responsible for the welfare and well being of its population. It is only when a state is manifestly unable or incapable of doing so that the international community should step in to halt a catastrophe from deteriorating even further. If state sovereignty is so important and central how does one react to a Rwanda or a Bosnia? Should the world remain inactive or step in to help? But the primary responsibility lies with the state itself so there is no attempt to stultify state sovereignty.

Many are suspicious that R2P is a route to military intervention by another name by the powerful in the affairs of the small and the weak. Again the answer is no. Military intervention is the absolute last resort they say. Before military intervention is even considered there is a repertoire of other actions that are possible and should be employed. These include capacity building with the state concerned, political and diplomatic pressure and even economic sanctions to make a state listen and respond. Proponents of R2P would argue that military intervention cannot be undertaken without such action being endorsed by the UN Security Council. But in the global south it is being asked what would happen if the Security Council does not approve of it. Would a coalition of like-minded states then decide to take matters into its own hands as NATO did in Bosnia in the ruptured Yugoslavia? Or would there be a right to humanitarian intervention invoked as India did in Sri Lanka in 1987.

One cannot provide a detailed account of R2P in a short column as this. But the need for characterising R2P more clearly to dispel some of the concerns exists. As Evans himself said he was asked in Canada whether the Inuits, a small minority in Canada, would fall within the ambit of R2P. Clearly not. Nor was the idea of sending a naval force to Myanmar and air dropping supplies forcibly during the recent natural disaster there. It was not an R2P situation. But as a successful R2P operation advocates point to Kenya after the last election when ethnic cleansing led to many deaths and a deteriorating situation was halted after international pressure.

I think there are challenges-intellectual, political and institutional- that confront the proponents of R2P and they seem to realise this. It is true that the largest gathering of world leaders at a UNGA endorsed the R2P concept at the summit in 2005. Sri Lanka was also represented. Three years later there might well be some leaders who are now wondering what they have let themselves in to. That is understandable. That is also why those who advocate R2P must make sure that there is a set of clearly articulated criteria particularly with regard to military intervention.

It is not enough to say that the emphasis has changed, for instance from Bernard Kouchner’s right to intervene to the responsibility to protect, the consideration being the people in danger. Any kind of intervention has to be rule-based and there must be a threshold of criteria. Violations of human rights cannot and must not be a reason for military intervention unless such violations are of catastrophic proportions and are likely to get worse. The argument cannot be purely in moral terms. There has to be a realistic assessment of the costs of that intervention, whether such military action would improve the situation of those affected or make it worse. If it is the latter then the rationale for intervention does not exist.

In any event any military intervention must have the authority of the Security Council behind it. If the SC is found lacking, then reform or refine the SC, not leave the matter in the hands of a powerful few which would be seen-and rightly so- as the return of imperialism, refined but imperialism all the same..

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