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The Responsibility to Protect: Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention

Address by Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group and Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, to The American Society of International Law, 98th Annual Meeting, Panel on “Rethinking Collective Action”, Washington DC, 1 April 2004 [1]

The Policy Challenge

Until terrorism overwhelmed international attention after 11 September 2001, the really big issue in international relations - the one that must have launched a thousand Ph.Ds - was the ‘‘right of humanitarian intervention’ - the question of when, if ever, it is appropriate for states to take coercive action, and in particular coercive military action, against another state for the purpose of protecting people at risk in that other state. Man-made internal catastrophe, and what the international community should do about it, is what preoccupied international relations practitioners, commentators and scholars more than anything else in the decade after the Cold War.

The cases around which the debate centered are all burnished in our memory. They are ones both when intervention happened, and when it didn’t. There was the debacle of the international intervention in Somalia in 1993; the pathetically inadequate response to genocide in Rwanda in 1994; the utter inability of the UN presence to prevent murderous ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995; and then NATO’s intervention, without Security Council approval, in Kosovo in 1999. These were not the only the cases – there was Northern Iraq, Liberia, Haiti, Sierra Leone as well, and also the more marginal situation of East Timor (marginal because Indonesia, under pressure, eventually consented to the Australian-led intervention so it was not strictly ‘coercive’). But Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo are the ones we remember most starkly, and between them they raised the full range of moral, legal, political and operational issues that the debate on humanitarian intervention is all about.[2]

None of these cases was well or confidently handled by the international community. With Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda, such interventions as did occur were too little too late, misconceived, poorly resourced, poorly executed, or all of the above. And with NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, Security Council members were divided; the legal justification for action without Security Council authority was asserted but largely unargued; the moral or humanitarian justification for the action, which on the face of it was much stronger, was clouded by allegations that the intervention triggered more carnage than it avoided; and the means by which the allies waged the war continue, justly or not, to be much complained about.

Every one of the big cases generated major international controversy – usually too late to be useful, and never enough to settle the issues of principle once and for all, including the role and responsibility of the United Nations, and the nature and limits of state sovereignty. By the dawn of the new century the debate remained wholly inconclusive. Intense disagreement persisted as to whether there was a right of intervention, how and when it should be exercised, and under whose authority.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is one of those who has tried hardest to get some sense and coherence into it all. Deeply troubled by the issues and the inconsistency of the international response, he challenged the General Assembly in 1999, and again in 2000, to find a way through these dilemmas, posing the issue in the starkest of terms:

…if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica—to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?

Annan’s own view was clear. “Surely no legal principle – not even sovereignty – can ever shield crimes against humanity”, he said in 1999. And as recently as his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture in Oslo last December he was still saying it: “The sovereignty of States must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights”.

But in the General Assembly debates of 1999 and 2000 which followed his initial call, the Secretary General was rewarded for the most part by cantankerous exchanges in which fervent supporters of intervention on humanitarian or human rights grounds, and anxious defenders of state sovereignty, dug themselves deeper and deeper into opposing trenches from which they have still not yet emerged.

The academic debate was not all that much more helpful. There has been a great deal of writing, much of it very thoughtful, but none of it very influential. The most well-known studies have probably been those commissioned by the Danish Government through its think-tank DUPI, the Netherlands Government through its Advisory Council on International Affairs, and the Swedish Government through its International Commission on Kosovo chaired by Richard Goldstone and Carl Tham. A common theme of these reports, and many other scholarly analyses, has been a distinction drawn between ‘legal’ and ‘legitimate’ interventions. But, intellectually comforting though this taxonomical distinction may be, it does not offer much guidance to political decision makers as to what in practice they should actually do.

And now, to compound the misery for those of us who like a little intellectual cleanliness and godliness in these matters, and don’t like to see such big issues unresolved, since 911 the debate on all this has more or less disappeared from public view. The preoccupation now is with how to capture and punish terrorists, and how to mount sustainable defences against them and the states who support them. And – at least since President Bush’s State of the Union Address – we are all now further engaged in trying to understand the nature and limits of the appropriate response to those states who threaten others, explicitly or implicitly, by their development of weapons of mass destruction.

The conceptual issues here are very old ones – what are states entitled to do, when faced with actual or apprehended attacks on their territory or their own nationals, by way of self-defence action (authorised under Article 51 of the UN Charter) or under the authority of Chapter VII of the UN Charter (which authorises the use of force “to maintain or restore international peace and security”). These issues are hugely important in their own right, and have many unresolved loose ends of their own both in principle and practice, but are quite distinct from those involved in the humanitarian intervention debate, which are about the justification for intervening forcibly in other states to protect that state’s own nationals, something on which the UN Charter is quite silent.

But the debate about humanitarian intervention has not gone away, and will not go away so long as human nature remains as fallible as it is. Internal conflict still remains the norm when it comes to serious violence - of the 56 armed conflicts occurring between 1990 and 2000 identified by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as major, in that they involved more than 1,000 battle-related deaths in one year, 53 of them were intra-state in character. Intrastate conflict is a phenomenon that exploded with the end of the Cold War, as the checks and balances and internal suppression that had maintained uneasy peace for so long fell away, but it shows – unhappily - no great sign of diminishing.

It can only be a matter of time before reports emerge again – from Central Africa, Central or South Asia, the Balkans or somewhere else – of massacres or mass starvation, or rape or ethnic cleansing, occurring or apprehended. And then the question will arise all over again in the Security Council and in political capitals and in the media – what do we do? This time round we must have the answers. Few things have done more harm to our shared ideal that we are all equal in worth and dignity, and that the earth is our common home, than the inability of the community of states to prevent genocide, massacre and ethnic cleansing. The last decade was not, on any view, a proud one. The beginning of a new century, here as elsewhere, gives us the psychological chance to wipe the slate clean – to think through the issues afresh, to find new common ground, and to ensure, above all else, that there are no more Rwandas.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty

It was against this background, and to respond to this policy challenge, that the Government of Canada – on the initiative of then Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy - with the support of several major US foundations, the assistance of the UK and Swiss Governments and the cooperation of many others, established in September 2000 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which I co-chaired along with the Algerian diplomat and UN Special Adviser Mohamed Sahnoun.

The objectives of the Commission were essentially threefold, although we never quite got around to articulating them in such stark terms. It was to produce a guide to action on responses by the international community to internal, man-made, human-rights violating catastrophe, which was:

intellectually credible and satisfying, not profoundly offending either the lawyers or philosophers (and hopefully not offending international relations theorists either, although I’m not sure that international theory these days is penetrable enough for anyone else to know whether they’e being offended or not, or to mind very much if they did know);

not likely to be rejected out of hand by either North or South, the permanent five members of the Security Council or any other major international constituency – in other words, be capable of acceptance in principle by governments as a framework for action;

and capable in practice of actually motivating action and mobilising support when a situation demanding such action arises.

The Commission has now just published and presented its final report [3], and our hope is that we might just succeed, where others have failed, in adding value in all these three respects. There are several good reasons why we may not be totally deluding ourselves.

First, because it is by far the most representative and consultative exercise yet attempted in this area. The Commission had a high profile and high quality membership, evenly divided between developed and developing countries. From the South there was Mohamed Sahnoun, Fidel Ramos, Cyril Ramaphosa, Eduardo Stein and Ramesh Thakur; from the North, in addition to me, there was Lee Hamilton, Gisele Cote-Harper, Michael Ignatieff and Klaus Naumann; with, in addition, Vladimir Lukin from Russia, and the former head of the ICRC Cornelio Sommaruga, whom our Chinese friends might describe as a Northener with Southern characteristics. And we travelled endlessly and consulted our heads off: the Commission met in Asia and Africa as well as North America and Europe, and held roundtables and other consultations in Latin America, the Middle East, Russia and China.

Secondly, because the exercise has been very comprehensive in scope - addressing not just the legal and moral dilemmas which have been at the heart of most of the academic and policy debate about coercive intervention so far, but operational and political issues as well. It has taken into account and tried to build upon all the best work done in the past: the Report has attached to it a substantial accompanying volume containing newly commissioned research and an annotated bibliography of previous writing.

Thirdly, because the whole exercise has had a sharply practical political focus. None of us want to see the report disappearing from sight soon after its release, having no other life than in libraries and research seminars – and Wesson lectures. We have recommended that its conclusions be debated in the UN General Assembly, and picked up and adopted by the Security Council – and the Secretary General, who has spoken publicly in very warm praise of the report, has indicated his willingness to take it forward in this respect. Preliminary responses from a number of key states, both North and South, have also been positive. That said, no-one can have any illusions about the degree of difficulty in getting adopted, in either the Assembly or Council, resolutions or even informal guidelines drafted with any precision, clarity or teeth.

But above all, fourthly, the hope was that the new Commission's report would add value by being innovative - bringing some genuinely new ways of thinking about the issue into the debate, and making it possible to bridge the gulf that has characterised state attitudes so far. The conceptual starting point in this endeavour has been to turn the whole debate on its head, and to recharacterise it not as an argument about the ‘right to intervene’ but rather about the ‘responsibility to protect’ – a responsibility owed by all sovereign states to their own citizens in the first instance, but one that must be picked up by the international community of states if that first tier responsibility is abdicated, or incapable of exercise.

How do we make the argument for this international responsibility to protect? What precisely is its content? What are the circumstances in which it can and should be exercised? Does it help us any more than talk of a ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ helped in wrestling with the questions of legitimacy, authority, operational effectiveness and political will that have dogged this whole debate? It is to these questions that I now turn, starting – as one has to – with just what is, and is not, involved in the modern notion of sovereignty.

Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect

The essence of the notion of sovereignty, in the Westphalian system that has governed international relations since the 17th century, has been control: the capacity to make authoritative decisions with regard to the people and resources within the territory of the state. The principle of sovereign equality of states is enshrined in Article 2.1 of the UN Charter, and the corresponding norm of non-intervention is enshrined in Article 2.7: a sovereign state is empowered in international law to exercise exclusive and total jurisdiction within its territorial borders, and other states have the corresponding duty not to intervene in its internal affairs. After World War II, membership of the United Nations became the final symbol of independent sovereign statehood and thus the seal of acceptance into the community of nations. The UN is an organization dedicated to the maintenance of international peace and security on the basis of protecting the territorial integrity, political independence and national sovereignty of its member states.

But these verities are now nothing like so clear-cut as they once seemed. Not only are the overwhelming majority of today’s armed conflicts internal, not inter-state, but the proportion of civilians to military killed in them increased from about one in ten at the start of the 20th century to around nine in ten by its close. This has presented the organization with a major difficulty: how to reconcile its foundational principles of member states’ sovereignty and the accompanying primary mandate to maintain international peace and security (“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”) – with the equally compelling mission to promote the interests and welfare of people within those states (“We the peoples of the United Nations”).

The key to meeting this difficulty is to rethink sovereignty in terms of its essence being not so much control as responsibility. TheCharter of the UN is itself an example of a set of international obligations voluntarily accepted by member states. On the one hand, in granting membership to the UN, the international community welcomes the signatory state as a responsible member of the community of nations. On the other hand, the state itself, in signing the Charter, accepts the responsibilities of membership flowing from that signature.

Thinking of sovereignty as responsibility has a threefold significance. First, it implies that the state authorities are responsible for the functions of protecting the safety and lives of citizens and promotion of their welfare. Secondly, it suggests that the national political authorities are responsible to their citizens internally, and to the international community through the UN. And thirdly, it means that the agents of state are responsible for their actions; that is to say, they are accountable for their acts of commission and omission.

The case for thinking of sovereignty in these terms is much strengthened by the ever increasing impact of international human rights norms, and the increasing impact in international discourse of the concept of human security. Sovereignty as responsibility is being increasingly recognized in state practice. The adoption of new standards of conduct for states in the protection and advancement of international human rights has been one of the great achievements of the post-World War II era. The Universal Declaration and the Covenants on civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights mapped out the international human rights agenda, established the benchmark for state conduct, inspired provisions in many national laws and international conventions, and have led to the creation of long-term national infrastructures for the protection and promotion of human rights. Accompanying all this has been a gradual transition from a culture of sovereign impunity to a culture of national and international accountability, with the international human rights norms and instruments being used as the concrete point of reference against which to judge state conduct.

Reinforcing this, in the last decade or so there has also been an important shift in international thinking in what is involved in the concept of security, as extending beyond states to people: their physical safety, their economic and social well-being, respect for their dignity and worth as human beings, and the protection of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is increasingly being acknowledged in this context that the fundamental components of human security – the security of people against threats to life, health, livelihood, personal safety and human dignity – can be put at risk by external aggression, but also by factors within a country, including “security” forces. Again the focus becomes not so much what sovereign states are entitled to do, but what they are not entitled to do in the exercise of their responsibility to their own people.

It is evident that there has been a large and growing gap, between the codified best practice of international behaviour as articulated in the UN Charter, whose explicit language emphasises the respect owed to state sovereignty, and actual state practice as it has evolved in the 56 years since the Charter was signed, which emphasises the limits of sovereignty. We in the Commission were intrigued, in the course of our worldwide travels and consultations to find the extent to which that gap was acknowledged.

The defence of state sovereignty, by even its strongest supporters, did not include any claim of the unlimited power of a state to do what it wants to its own people. We heard no such claim at any stage. It was acknowledged that sovereignty implies a dual responsibility: externally – to respect the sovereignty of other states, and internally, to respect the dignity and basic rights of all the people within the state. In international human rights covenants, in UN practice, and in state practice itself, sovereignty is now understood as embracing this dual responsibility. Sovereignty as responsibility has become the minimum content of good international citizenship.

While there is not yet a sufficiently strong basis to claim the emergence, in all of this, of something as formal as a new principle of customary international law, growing state and regional organization practice as well as Security Council precedent do suggest an emerging norm, or guiding principle, which can usefully be described, in the Commission’s language, as “the responsibility to protect”.

Whatever its foundations in theory and practice, there is good reason to believe that using the language of “ responsibility to protect” rather than the more familiar “right to intervene” will be very useful in the policy debate - helping enormously to de-prickle it, and to get state actors in particular thinking afresh about what the real issues are. Changing the terminology away from “intervention” to “protection” allows us, for a start, to get away from the language of “humanitarian intervention”, which has always enraged humanitarian relief organisations like the Red Cross, who have hated the association of the word “humanitarian” with military activity. But beyond that, talking about the “responsibility to protect” rather than the “right to intervene” has three big advantages:

First, the responsibility to protect implies an evaluation of the issues from the point of view of those seeking or needing support, rather than those who may be considering intervention. This terminology refocuses the international searchlight back where it should always be: on the duty to protect communities from mass killing, women from systematic rape and children from starvation.

Secondly, the responsibility to protect acknowledges that the primary responsibility in this regard rests with the state concerned, and that it is only if the state is unable or unwilling to fulfill this responsibility, or is itself the perpetrator, that it becomes the responsibility of the international community to act in its place.

Thirdly, the responsibility to protect is an umbrella concept, embracing not just the “responsibility to react,” but the “responsibility to prevent” and the “responsibility to rebuild” as well. Both of these dimensions have been much neglected in the traditional humanitarian intervention, and bringing them back to centre stage to rank in priority alongside the issue of reaction should do much to make the concept of reaction itself more palatable. The responsibility to prevent involves addressing both the root causes and the more direct and immediate causes of internal conflict and other man-made crises putting populations at risk, using all the complex array of measures available – political/diplomatic, legal, economic and military. The Commission report makes the point, in the strongest and most explicit of terms, that prevention is the single most important dimension of the responsibility to protect, and that it is more than high time for both national governments and the international community to be closing the gap between rhetorical support for prevention and tangible commitment.

The responsibility to rebuild means following through after the event, providing full assistance with recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation, and addressing in the process the causes of the harm the intervention was designed to halt or avert. If military intervention action is taken – because of a breakdown or abdication of a state’s own capacity and authority in discharging its own responsibility to protect – there should be a genuine commitment to helping build a durable peace, and promoting good governance and sustainable development.

Principles for Military Intervention

As critical as the dimensions of prevention and rebuilding are, the core of the debate – and the most difficult conceptual and political issues - revolves around the issue of reaction. The argument is that the responsibility to protect, whatever else it encompasses, implies above all else a responsibility to react to situations of compelling need for human protection. When preventive measures fail to resolve or contain the situation and when a state is unable or willing to redress the situation, then interventionary measures by other members of the broader community of states may be required.

These coercive measures may include political, economic or judicial measures, and in extreme cases – but only extreme cases – they may also include military action. But what is an extreme case? Where should we draw the line in determining when military intervention is, prima facie, defensible? What other conditions or restraints, if any, should apply in determining whether and how that intervention should proceed? And, most difficult of all, who makes all these decisions: who should have the ultimate authority to determine whether an intrusion into a sovereign state, involving the use of deadly force on a potentially massive scale, should actually go ahead?

The Commission wrestled long and hard with all these questions, and the enormous literature they have generated. But in the event the task was easier than it appeared. While there are almost as many different lists of such criteria as there are contributions to the writing and political debate on this subject, the differing length of these lists, and the different terminology involved, in reality there is an enormous amount of common ground to be found when one focuses on the core issues. All the relevant decision-making criteria seemed to us capable of being summarized under the following six headings: just cause (the threshold criteria for action), right intention, last resort, proportionality, reasonable prospects (what we called other precautionary criteria) and right authority (the critical question of who decides – just the Security Council, or anyone else).

If you think all this terminology sounds a bit familiar, you’re right: it has a long intellectual pedigree in just war theory, going back to the early Middle Ages. But being a very PC kind of Commission – claiming to articulate universal values rather than any particular cultural subset – we decided that when it came to emphasising that particular Christian and Euro-Centric connection, discretion was the better part of valour.

The Just Cause Threshold

The threshold test needs to be set high and tight, for both conceptual reasons (military intervention for human protection purposes must be regarded as an exceptional and extraordinary measure) and practical political ones (if intervention is to happen when it is most necessary, it can’t be called upon too often). The Commission’s judgment was that military intervention for human protection purposes is justified in two broad sets of circumstances, and two only, namely in order to halt or avert:

large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation;

or large scale “ethnic cleansing,” actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror, or rape (where rape is perpetrated as another form of terrorism, or as a means of changing the ethnic composition of the group in question). While we made no attempt to quantify “large scale”, we made it absolutely clear that military action can be legitimate as an anticipatory measure in response to clear evidence of likely large-scale killing or ethnic cleansing. Without this possibility of anticipatory action, the international community would be placed in the morally untenable position of being required to wait until genocide begins, before being able to take action to stop it.

The threshold criteria we articulated are wide enough to cover not only the deliberate perpetration of horrors such as occurred, or were anticipated, in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo, but situations as well of state collapse and the resultant exposure of the population to mass starvation and/or civil war (as in Somalia). Also potentially covered would be overwhelming natural or environmental catastrophes, which are not in themselves man-made, but where the state concerned is either unwilling or unable to cope, or call for assistance, and significant loss of life is occurring or threatened.

What are not covered by the “just cause” threshold we set are situations of human rights violations (such as systematic racial discrimination or political oppression) falling short of outright killing or ethnic cleansing, the overthrow of democratically elected governments and the rescue by a state of its own nationals on foreign territory. Although eminently deserving of external action of various kinds – including in appropriate cases political, economic or military sanctions – these are not cases which would seem to justify military action for human protection purposes.

Right Intention

The primary purpose of the intervention, whatever other motives intervening states may have, must be to halt or avert human suffering. Overthrow of regimes is not, as such, a legitimate objective, although disabling that regime’s capacity to harm its own people may be essential to discharging the mandate of protection – and what is necessary to achieve that disabling will vary from case to case. One way of helping ensure the “right intention” criterion is satisfied is to have military intervention always take place on a collective or multilateral rather than single-country basis. Another is to look to whether, and to what extent, the intervention is actually supported by the people for whose benefit the intervention is intended. And yet another is to look to whether, and to what extent, the opinion of other countries in the region has been taken into account and is supportive.

Complete disinterestedness – the absence of any narrow self-interest at all – may be an ideal, but it is not likely always to be a reality: mixed motives, in international relations as everywhere else, are a fact of life. Moreover, the budgetary cost and risk to personnel involved in any military action may in fact make it politically imperative for the intervening state to be able to claim some degree of self-interest in the intervention, however altruistic its primary motive might actually be. To those domestic constituencies who may actually demand of their governments, when it comes to intervention for human protection purposes, that they not moved by altruistic “right intention,” the best short answer may be that, these days, good international citizenship is a matter of national self interest. With the world as close and interdependent as it now is, and with crises in “faraway countries of which we know little” as capable as they now are of generating major problems elsewhere (with terrorism, refugee outflows, health pandemics, narcotics trafficking, organized crime and the like), it is strongly arguable that it is in every country’s interest to contribute cooperatively to the resolution of such problems, quite apart from the humanitarian imperative to do so.

Last Resort

Every diplomatic and non-military avenue for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the humanitarian crisis must have been explored. The responsibility to react – with military coercion – can only be justified when the responsibility to prevent has been fully discharged. This does not necessarily mean that every such option must literally have been tried and failed: often there will simply not be the time for that process to work itself out. But it does mean that there must be reasonable grounds for believing that, in all the circumstances, if the measure had been attempted it would not have succeeded.

Proportional Means

The scale, duration and intensity of the planned military intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the humanitarian objective in question. The means have to be commensurate with the ends, and in line with the magnitude of the original provocation. The effect on the political system of the country targeted should be limited, again, to what is strictly necessary to accomplish the purpose of the intervention. While it may be a matter for argument in each case what are the precise practical implications of these strictures, the principles involved are clear enough.

Reasonable Prospects

Military action can only be justified if it stands a reasonable chance of success, that is, halting or averting the atrocities or suffering that triggered the intervention in the first place. Military intervention is not justified if actual protection cannot be achieved, or if the consequences of embarking upon the intervention are likely to be worse than if there is no action at all. In particular, a military action for limited human protection purposes cannot be justified if in the process it triggers a larger conflict. It will be the case that some human beings simply cannot be rescued except at unacceptable cost – perhaps of a larger regional conflagration, involving major military powers. In such cases, however painful the reality, coercive military action is no longer justified.

Application of this precautionary principle would on purely utilitarian grounds be likely to preclude military action against any one of the five permanent members of the Security Council even if all the other conditions for intervention described here were met. It is difficult to imagine a major conflict being avoided, or success in the original objective being achieved, if such action were mounted against any of them. The same is true of other major powers who are not permanent members of Security Council. This raises the familiar question of double standards, to which the only answer can be this: the reality that interventions may not be able to be mounted in every case where there is justification for doing so, is no reason for them not to be mounted in any case.

Right Authority

When it comes to authorising military intervention for human protection purposes, the argument is compelling that the United Nations, and in particular the Security Council, should be the first port of call. The difficult question – starkly raised by Kosovo – is whether it should be the last.

The UN is unquestionably the principal institution for building, consolidating and using the authority of the international community. It was set up to be the linchpin of order and stability, the framework within which members of the international system negotiated agreements on the rules of behaviour and the legal norms of proper conduct in order to preserve the society of states. Thus, simultaneously, the UN was to be the forum for mediating power relationships; for accomplishing political change that is held to be just and desirable by the international community; for promulgating new norms; and for conferring the stamp of collective legitimacy.

The authority of the UN is underpinned not by coercive power, but by its role as the applicator of legitimacy. The concept of legitimacy acts as the connecting link between the exercise of authority and the recourse to power. Attempts to enforce authority can only be made by the legitimate agents of that authority. Collective intervention blessed by the UN is regarded as legitimate because it is duly authorized by a representative international body; unilateral intervention is seen as illegitimate because self-interested. Those who challenge or evade the authority of the UN as the sole legitimate guardian of international peace and security in specific instances run the risk of eroding its authority in general and also undermining the principle of a world order based on international law and universal norms.

There are lots of reasons to be dissatisfied with the role that the Security Council has played so far - its generally uneven performance, its unrepresentative membership, and its inherent institutional double standards with the Permanent Five veto power. But the Commission was in absolutely no doubt that there is no better or more appropriate body than the Security Council to deal with military intervention issues for human protection purposes. That was the overwhelming consensus we found in all our consultations around the world. The political reality – quite apart from the force of the argument in principle – is that if international consensus is ever to be reached about when, where, how and through whom military intervention should happen, it is very clear that the central role of the Security Council will have to be at the heart of that consensus. Viewed this way, the task is not to find alternatives to the Security Council as a source of authority, but to make the Security Council work much better than it has.

Hopefully the report and recommendations of the Commission will carry their own momentum in this respect, including our recommendation (suggested to us by one of the P5 foreign ministers) that the Permanent Five members of the Security Council should agree not to apply their veto power, in matters where their vital state interests are not involved, to obstruct the passage of resolutions authorizing military intervention for human protection purposes for which there is otherwise majority support.

If the Security Council proves to be unable or unwilling to act in circumstances which appear to cry out for such action – for example, another Rwanda or Kosovo-like situation – the only institutional solutions which seem available are:

consideration of the matter by the General Assembly in Emergency Special Session under the “Uniting for Peace” procedure (used as the basis for operations in Korea in 1950, Egypt in 1956 and the Congo in 1960), which may well in fact have delivered, and speedily, a majority recommendation for action in the Rwanda, and especially Kosovo, cases; and

action within area of jurisdiction by regional or sub-regional organizations under Chapter VIII of the Charter, subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council (as happened with the West African interventions in Liberia in the early 1990s and Sierra Leone in 1997).

Interventions by ad hoc coalitions (or, even more, individual states) acting without the approval of the Security Council, or the General Assembly, or a regional or sub-regional grouping of which the target state is a member, do not – it would be an understatement to say – find wide favour. As a matter of political reality, it would simply be impossible to find consensus around any set of proposals for military intervention which acknowledged the validity of any intervention not authorized by the Security Council or General Assembly. But that may still leave circumstances when the Security Council fails to discharge its own responsibility to protect, in a conscience-shocking situation crying out for action. It is a real question in these circumstances as to which of two evils is the worse: the damage to international order if the Security Council is bypassed, or in the damage to that order if human beings are slaughtered while the Security Council stands by.

The Commission responded to this dilemma by articulating two important messages for the Security Council in all of this. The first is that if the Security Council fails to discharge its responsibility in conscience-shocking situations crying out for action, then concerned individual states simply may not rule out other means to meet their gravity and urgency. And there is a risk then that such interventions, without the discipline and constraints of UN authorization, will not be conducted for the right reasons or with the right commitment to the necessary precautionary principles.

The second message is that if, following the failure of the Council to act, a military intervention is undertaken by an ad hoc coalition or individual state which does fully observe and respect all the necessary threshold and precautionary criteria, and if that intervention is carried through successfully – and is seen by world public opinion to have been carried through successfully – then this may have enduringly serious consequences for the stature and credibility of the UN itself. That is pretty much what happened with the U.S. and NATO intervention in Kosovo, and the UN cannot afford to drop the ball too many times on that scale.


I am not going to try to summarise or even address all the issues dealt with in the Commission’s report – for example the discussions of operational principles (how military interventions should be planned and carried out) and how to mobilise political will, both international and domestic, in support of the “responsibility to protect” approach. What I have tried to do is address the key conceptual issues with which the Commission wrestled, and to put them in a sharply real world, political, rather than purely abstract context.

But at the end of the day the Commission’s contribution may prove in a sense to be more abstract than anything else. What our whole report really depends upon is the acceptance of the central big idea – the conceptual shift from the right to intervene to the responsibility to protect. Everything else follows from that: the emphasis on the primary responsibility of states themselves, the emphasis on prevention and rebuilding as well as just reaction, and the force of the imperative to act when the circumstances cry out for it.

It is wrong to be cynical about the power of ideas to influence the world of government and intergovernmental action. If well formulated, well argued, expressed in language that can readily be understood, they can and do have an impact – however cynical, sceptical or indifferent to general principles (as distinct from case by case ‘on the merits’ ad hoccery), the practitioners of that world may seem, and indeed think themselves, to be. Ideas do matter. The Brundtland Commission, for example, by inventing the concept of “sustainable development”, created a wholly new basis for constructive dialogue – previously utterly lacking – between pro-development and pro-environment activists and policy makers the world over.

As much as we might hope otherwise, nothing is more certain than that the international community will be confronted again by events all too resonant of the 1990s agonies in the Great Lakes, the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, East Timor and elsewhere—and sooner rather than later. Reacting to these situations in the ad hoc and often quite ineffective or counter-productive way that we have to date is no longer the kind of luxury we can afford as interdependent global neighbours.

If the Commission’s report, with its new emphasis on “the responsibility to protect” as the central governing theme, can help bring about a more systematic, balanced and less ideological debate of the main issues by the international community – and - even more if it can provide an accepted framework for dealing with these matters as they arise in future in concrete and positive ways – then we won’t have been wasting our time.

There must be no more Rwandas. As the Commission concluded its report by saying, if we believe that all human beings are equally entitled to be protected from acts that shock the conscience of us all, then we must match rhetoric with reality, principle with practice. We cannot be content with reports and declarations. We must, as an international community, be prepared to act. We won’t be able to live with ourselves if we do not.

[1] This paper was originally delivered as the 2002 Wesson Lecture in International Relations Theory and Practice, Stanford University, 27 February 2002. For a shorter distillation of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report, see Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’, Foreign Affairs, Vol 81 No 6, November/December 2002, pp. 99-110.

[2] Since this was written, the ‘humanitarian intervention’ has burst back into prominence in the context of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. As weapons of mass destruction failed to turn up, and the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s links with terrorists failed to get any stronger, defenders of the war were forced back to supporting it on straightforward humanitarian intervention grounds: Saddam’s gross mistreatment of his own people, which reached genocidal levels in his use of chemical weapons against Kurds in the late 80s and his massacre of southern Shiites in the early 90s. Opponents of the Iraq war have responded by saying this was not the real motive for intervention at the time, and cannot credibly be claimed as such after the event. Moreover, they say, if it had been the real motive, it wasn’t good enough to justify going to war when all other relevant considerations were taken into account. So, with opinion as heated and divided as ever, it has become necessary all over again to try to untangle the issues involved.

[3] The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (91pp with CD insert), plus Supplementary Volume, Research, Bibliography,Background (410 pp), IDRC, Canada, December 2001. The Report and Supplementary Volume may be downloaded from the Commission website www.iciss-ciise.gc.ca.