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Making Idealism Realistic: The Responsibility to Protect as a New Global Security Norm

Address by Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group, to launch Stanford MA Program in International Policy Studies, Stanford University, 7 February 2007

It is a huge pleasure for me to be back at Stanford where, although I have never been either a student or faculty member, I have spent quite some time in my various incarnations over the years in and around Encina Hall debating and jousting with people like Dan Okimoto, Larry Lau, Bill Perry, David Holloway, Don Emmerson and Chip Blacker, and waging amiable war with George Shultz and those of a generally more conservative disposition across the way at Hoover.

In more recent times I have had the enormous pleasure and privilege of working with Steve Stedman on the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, as we tried - heroically but I fear for the most part fruitlessly - to make this unruly monolith a credible, responsive, effective 21st century institution. Steve is a superbly capable professional in every sense of the world, who moves effortlessly back and forth between the scholarly and policy worlds, and is a brilliant choice to head this new Masters program, whose birth – supported by wonderful and far sighted generosity of Susan Ford Dorsey – we are celebrating this evening.

One of the particular pleasures of working with Steve Stedman is his great talent as a wordsmith – his capacity not only to get the ideas right, but to phrase them in a succinct, elegant and memorable way. So a good place to start my talk might be with some recent comments from another great wordsmith of my acquaintance, albeit perhaps of a slightly different ideological persuasion, Ambassador Ken Adelman, whom I first met when he was head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Reagan administration, and who earned the soubriquet ‘Cakewalk Ken’, you will recall, following the splendidly vivid way in which he expressed his enthusiasm for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and his then supreme confidence in the ease of the task in hand.

(I should say in parenthesis that I have a certain empathy with those who get pilloried by the media for supplying them with the very kind of colourful language for which they constantly lust, having had such experiences both at the beginning and end of my ministerial career - and, let it be confessed, on a few occasions in between. Journalists in Australia still refer to the time, as a young Attorney-General now nearly 25 years ago, I explained matters after one particular policy catastrophe by saying ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’, compounding the felony by describing this manifestly limp gambit as the ‘Streaker’s Defence’ (the notion being, for anyone unfamiliar with this Anglo-Saxon bevavioural phenomenon, that if someone is hauled before a court after running naked onto a football or cricket field in front of 80,000 people there is not much else he or she can say). And at the end of my ministerial career, when democracy worked its charms and after thirteen years threw me and my party out of office in 1996, I was again worked over for months for saying I was suffering from RDS, or ‘Relevance Deprivation Syndrome’. The first rule of electoral politics, I’m afraid, which I’m prepared to offer as unsolicited advice to all 25 current US presidential candidates, is that if you have something resembling a sense of humour, save it for consenting adults in private.)

The comment from Ken Adelman that intrigues me for present purposes is not his ‘cakewalk’ gambit, but something he has said more recently in the context of his spectacular recantation of support for the present administration – including his old friend and mentor Don Rumsfeld - in last December’s issue of Vanity Fair. After describing in hair-raisingly trenchant terms all that has gone wrong in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, he said ‘the idea of a tough foreign policy on behalf of morality, the idea of using our power for moral good in the world’ is ‘not going to sell’ for a generation.

US foreign policy over the last few years has been characterized by a particular brand of idealism - the kind supported by Ken Adelman and many who previously sailed with him - that, frankly, has not done very much for brand America. Bombing for democracy has not proved a strong ratings ploy; selective democracy – free and fair elections are fine so long as parties like Hamas don’t win, and you don’t run the risk of overturning friends like Pervez Musharraf or Hosni Mubarak – doesn’t do much for take-up among even the truest of believers; and ‘tough foreign policy on behalf of morality’ that leads to talk about an ‘axis of evil’, which has done nothing but encourage countries with practically nothing in common to make common cause, has been widely seen as even more counterproductive. When you put all this in the context of a military adventure widely seen to have been based on indifference to demonstrable facts, naïve in its assumptions, crude in its application of military force, and totally bungled in its subsequent execution – the general feeling is that if this be idealism, may we please be spared any more of the same.

But if idealism has its limits, the alternative is not a crude and one-dimensional brand of foreign policy realism either. A foreign policy that is founded only on a hard-headed and very narrow view of national interest is a policy that can all too readily descend into cynical indifference: the kind that enabled successive previous US administrations ( both George Bush Senior’s, whose foreign policy performance in many other ways was very much to be admired, and Bill Clinton’s) to shrug their shoulders about Saddam Hussein’s genocidal assaults on the Kurds in the north in the late 80s and the Shiites in the south of Iraq in the early 1990s, or to find reasons for ignoring the rapidly unfolding Rwandan genocide in 1994. None of which did much for brand America either.

My view of the world - I hope, after two decades or more in this business, not too naïve - is that what the US, like every other country, needs, and what all the polling evidence suggests all our publics will support, and what the overwhelming majority of governments in the world will genuinely respect, is a foreign policy based on a principled and judicious mixture of both idealism and realism.

One crucial element in that mix is a willingness to accept and embrace - without ifs, buts and maybes - the principle of ‘the responsibility to protect’. This concept - which had its birth in the Canadian-sponsored Commission I co-chaired in 2001– was designed to address a set of questions which were at the heart of international policy debate throughout the 1990s and which raise more starkly than almost any other conceivable foreign policy issue the idealism/realism dilemma: when, if ever, is it right for states to take coercive action, in particular military action, against another sovereign state, not in self-defence, not because of any immediate cross-border threat to other sovereign states, but for the primary purpose of protecting people at risk within it ?

The core idea of the responsibility to protect – or ‘R2P’ as it has now become widely known in this age of acronymphomania – is a simple enough one. It is that while the primary responsibility to protect its own people from genocide and other such man-made catastrophes is that of the state itself, when a state fails to meet that responsibility, either through incapacity or ill-will, then the responsibility to protect shifts to the international community – to be exercised by measures all the way up to, if absolutely necessary, military force.

The former Provost of this great institution made one of the strongest and clearest statements of her time as Secretary of State when she said last September, in the margins of the UN General Assembly, in relation to the deteriorating situation in Darfur, that “If the notion of our responsibility to protect the weakest and most powerless among us is ever to be more than an empty promise, then we must action to save lives.”

Condi Rice’s statement is worth close attention for two reasons. First, because it squarely recognizes and embraces the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle, and did so precisely in the context where its application is most immediately called for, the situation in Darfur, where over the last three years at least 200,000 people have died, over 2 million have been displaced, 5,000 more are dying each month from war-related disease and malnutrition as well as continuing outright violence, international peacekeeping efforts have been manifestly inadequate, humanitarian relief is faltering and the overall situation is again deteriorating.

But Secretary Rice’s statement also demands attention for a more depressing reason: like most of the high-sounding calls to action that have preceded it, the long trail of ‘never agains’ that have stretched from the Holocaust to Cambodia to Rwanda to Srebrenica, it has not been followed by any meaningful action at all, from the U.S. or anyone else, in the UN Security Council or anywhere else. If the responsibility to protect is a new international norm, setting new standards to guide international behaviour – if it is to be the central modern example of realistic idealism - it is one that has a long way to go before it is effectively operationalised in practice

All that said, it is important to recognize not just how far we have to go, but how far we have actually come. The concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’, born in 2001, has now been formally and unanimously embraced by the whole international community in the UN 60th Anniversary World Summit in September 2005. And arguably even more importantly given the Security Council’s real executive authority, it has been reaffirmed subsequently by the Security Council in April 2006, and begun since to be incorporated in country-specific resolutions, in particular on Darfur. In just five years - a remarkably short time when set against other movements in the history of ideas - we have seen the emergence of what can reasonably be described as a brand new international norm of really quite fundamental ethical importance and novelty in the international system. On any view that is unquestionably a major breakthrough, and one that, for all the grinding and wearying task of implementation that lies ahead, should regenerate our optimism about the art of the possible in international relations.

To see how far we have come, we have to remember where we were. Going all the way back to the emergence of the modern system of sovereign states in the 17th century, the view has prevailed that, to put it bluntly, sovereignty is a license to kill: what happens within state borders, however grotesque and morally indefensible, is nobody else’s business. Although the language of the 1945 UN Charter is more delicate, it essentially reflects this traditional view, with Article 2(7) providing: “Nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State”. The UN founders were overwhelmingly preoccupied with the problem of states waging war against each other, and took unprecedented steps to limit their freedom of action in that respect. But, notwithstanding all the genocidal horrors inflicted during the Second World War, they showed no particular interest in the question of what constraints might be imposed on how states dealt with their own subjects.

But it was almost as if, with the signing of the Genocide Convention in 1948, the task of addressing man-made atrocities was seen as complete: it was rarely invoked, and never effectively applied. And it is only in very recent years – with the establishment of the international criminal tribunals on the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and now the creation (over U.S. objections) of the International Criminal Court – that anything remotely systematic measures have been taken by the international community against individuals committing crimes against humanity.

The state of mind that even massive atrocity crimes like those of the Cambodian killing fields were not the rest of the world’s business, prevailed throughout the UN’s first half-century of existence: Vietnam’s invasion, which stopped the Khmer Rouge in its tracks, was universally attacked, not applauded. The traditional view of sovereignty, as enabling absolute control of everything internal and demanding immunity from external intervention, was much reinforced by the large increase in UN membership during decolonisation era – the states who joined were all newly proud of their identity, conscious in many cases of their fragility, and generally saw the non-intervention norm as one of their few defences against threats and pressures from more powerful international actors seeking to promote their own economic and political interests.

With the arrival of the 1990s, and the end of the Cold War, however, the prevailing complacent assumptions about non-intervention came under challenge as never before. The quintessential peace and security problem became not interstate war, but civil war and internal violence perpetrated on a massive scale. With the break-up of various Cold War state structures, most obviously in Yugoslavia, and the removal of some superpower constraints, conscience-shocking situations repeatedly arose. But old habits of non-intervention died very hard. Even when situations cried out for some kind of response, and the international community did react through the UN, it was too often erratically, incompletely or counter-productively, as in Somalia in 1993, Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica, in 1995. Then came Kosovo in 1999, when the international community did in fact intervene as it probably should have, but did so without the authority of the Security Council in the face of a threatened veto by Russia.

All this generated very fierce debate about what came to be called the issue of “the right of humanitarian intervention. On the one hand there were those – mostly in the global north - who argued strongly for the ‘the right to intervene’; on the other hand, claims were equally vehemently made – mostly in the global south - about the primacy and continued resonance of the concept of national sovereignty. Battle lines were drawn, trenches were dug, and verbal missiles flew: the debate was intense and very bitter, and the 90s finished with it utterly unresolved in the UN or anywhere else. This led Secretary-General Kofi Annan to make his agitated plead to the General Assembly in his 2000 Millennium Report, which brought the issue to a very public head, and which resonates to this day:

If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Sebrenica, to gross and systematic violations of human rights?

The task of meeting this challenge fell, in the event, to International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), sponsored by the Canadian Government – which I had the privilege of co-chairing with the Algerian diplomat and veteran UN Africa adviser Mohamed Sahnoun. In our report, entitled The Responsibility to Protect, presented at the end of 2001, the Commission made, I think it is fair to say, four main contributions to the international policy debate which have been resonating ever since.

The first, and perhaps ultimately the politically most useful, was to invent a new way of talking about ‘humanitarian intervention’. We sought to turn the whole weary debate about the ‘right to intervene’ on its head, and to re-characterise it not as an argument about the ‘right’ of states to anything, but rather about their ‘responsibility’ – one to protect people at grave risk: the relevant perspective, we argued, was not that of prospective interveners but those needing support. The searchlight was swung back where it should always be: on the need to protect communities from mass killing and ethnic cleansing, women from systematic rape and children from starvation. The Commission’s hope - and so far, broadly, our experience - was that using ‘responsibility to protect’ rather than ‘right to intervene’ language would enable entrenched opponents to find new ground on which to more constructively engage, just as proved to be the case, after the Brundtland Commission years earlier introduced the concept of ‘sustainable development’, between developers and environmentalists.

The second contribution of the Commission, perhaps most conceptually significant, was to insist upon a new way of talking about sovereignty: we argued that its essence should now be seen not as ‘control’, as in the centuries old Westphalian tradition, but, again, as ‘responsibility’. The starting point is that any state has the primary responsibility to protect the individuals within it. But that is not the finishing point: where the state fails in that responsibility, through either incapacity or ill-will, a secondary responsibility to protect falls on the wider international community.

The third contribution of the Commission was to make it clear that the ‘responsibility to protect’ was about much more than intervention, and in particular military intervention. It extends to a whole continuum of obligations: the responsibility, most important of all, to prevent these situations arising; the responsibility to react to them when they did, with a whole graduated menu of responses, from the persuasive to the coercive; and the responsibility to rebuild after any intrusive intervention – of which the most important is the responsibility to prevent.

The remaining contribution of the Commission was to come up with guidelines for when the most extreme form of coercive reaction, military action, would be appropriate. That’s when the rubber really hits the road if you want a morality-driven policy to have take-up in the real world – if you want idealism to be realistic. The first criterion was obviously legality, and here we saw our task as not to try and find alternatives to the clear legal authority of the Security Council, but rather to make it work better, so there was less chance of it being bypassed. That was followed by five criteria of legitimacy, designed as a set of benchmarks which, while they might not guarantee consensus in any particular case, would hopefully make its achievement much more likely.

It is one thing to develop a concept like the responsibility to protect, but quite another to get any policy maker to take any notice of it. The most interesting thing about the Responsibility to Protect report is the way its central theme has continued to gain traction internationally.

The concept was first seriously embraced in the doctrine of the newly emerging African Union, and over the next two to three years it won quite a constituency among academic commentators and international lawyers (a not unimportant constituency, given that international law is the rather odd beast that it is – capable of evolving through practice and commentary as well as through formal treaty instruments).

But the big step forward came with last year’s UN 60th Anniversary World Summit, which followed a major preparatory effort involving the report of the High Level Panel on new security threats – on which Steve Stedman and I worked together – and which fed in turn into a major report by the Secretary-General himself, in the drafting of which Steve played a central role. Both these reports emphatically embraced the responsibility to protect concept, and the Summit Outcome Document, unanimously agreed by the more than 150 heads of state and government present and meeting as the UN General Assembly, unambiguously picked up their core recommendations. Its language, though a little wordier and woollier than it needed to be, was quite clear-cut in picking up the core theme of the Commission report:

That this endorsement happened was anything but inevitable. Not much else of any significance was agreed by the Summit, despite all the preparatory buildup and high expectations, and a fierce rearguard action was fought by a small group of developing countries. What carried the day in the end was not so much consistent support from the EU and U.S. – support which after the invasion of Iraq was not particularly helpful, it has to be acknowledged, when it came to meeting familiar sovereignty concerns. The support that mattered, rather, was persistent advocacy by sub-Saharan African countries, led by South Africa; a clear - and historically quite significant - embrace of limited-sovereignty principles by the key Latin American countries; and some very effective last minute personal diplomacy with major wavering-country leaders by Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.

A further important conceptual development has occurred since last September’s Summit: the adoption by the Security Council in April of a thematic resolution on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict which contains, in an operative paragraph, an express reaffirmation of the World Summit conclusions relating to the responsibility to protect. And we have now begun to see that resolution in turn now being invoked in subsequent specific situations, as with Resolution 1706 of 31 August on Darfur. A General Assembly resolution may be helpful, as the World Summit’s unquestionably was, in identifying relevant principles, but the Security Council is the institution that matters when it comes to executive action. And at least a toehold there has now been carved.

On any view, the evolution in just five years of the responsibility to protect concept, from a gleam in a commission’s eye, to what now has the pedigree to be described as a broadly accepted international norm (and one with the potential to evolve into a rule of customary international law) is an extremely encouraging story, and we ought to be encouraged by it.

But this is just about where the good news ends. We simply cannot be at all confident that the world will respond quickly, effectively and appropriately to new human catastrophes as they arise, as the current case of Darfur is all too unhappily demonstrating. There is much unfinished business to attend to, falling from my perspective into four main categories.

Holding the Line Against Backsliding. We cannot, unfortunately, assume that the bridgehead achieved at the World Summit and in subsequent Security Council resolutions will necessarily hold. Some member states – particularly in Asia – were very reluctant to accept this part of the Summit outcome document, and continue to fight a rearguard action against it. They have been much aided in this respect by R2P’s false friends. Occasional efforts by defenders of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, notably the UK government, to paint it as justified by R2P principles (as other defences in terms of possession of weapons of mass destruction or support for international terrorism crumbled away) have not been at all analytically persuasive. But they have succeeded admirably in reinforcing the arguments of R2P opponents that any concession as to the limits of state sovereignty would create an excuse that would be exploited all too willingly by neo-colonialists and neo-imperialists keen to return to their bad old interventionist habits of decades past.

Adopting Guidelines for the Use of Military Force. The Canadian Commission recognized that the issue of when it was right to fight – to use the most extreme of the options available to react to an R2P situation - had to be specifically addressed if the idealism of our concept of international responsibility was to be realistically applicable in practice. We accordingly identified a set of prudential criteria in this respect which it argued should be adopted by the Security Council. These were, in short, the seriousness of the harm being threatened (which would need to involve large scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing to prima facie justify something as extreme as military action); the motivation or primary purpose of the proposed military action (whether it was primarily to halt or avert the threat in question, or had some other main objective); whether there were reasonably available peaceful alternatives; the proportionality of the response; and, not least, the balance of consequences – whether overall more good than harm would be done by a military invasion.

These recommendations were subsequently embraced both by the High Level Panel and the Secretary-General in his own report to the 2005 World Summit - but not adopted by it, and they remain in limbo. Of course no criteria of the kind the Commission argued for, even if agreed as guidelines by the Security Council, will ever end argument on how they should be applied in particular instances, for example Darfur right now [and I’m happy to discuss further in question time the applicability of these criteria to Darfur or elsewhere if anyone wants to ask me.] But it is hard to believe they would not be more helpful than the present totally ad hoc system in focusing attention on the relevant issues, revealing weaknesses in argument, and generally encouraging consensus.

Building Available Capacity. If R2P is not to remain more theoretical than real, we must somehow solve the problem of capacity, ensuring that the right civilian and, as necessary, military resources are always there in the right amounts and with the appropriate capability. The experience of the current AU mission in Darfur is a classic demonstration of the problem - too few troops, too poorly equipped, and too immobile to perform effectively even the limited civilian protection task required by their present mandate. The UN is currently feeling desperately overstretched, with over 80,000 military and 15,000 civilian personnel deployed worldwide, but with the world’s armed services currently absorbing some 20 million men and women in uniform (with another 50 million reservists, and 11 million paramilitaries), it hardly seems beyond the wit of man to work out a way of making some of that capacity available when and where it’s needed to prevent and react to man-made catastrophe.

Another crucial practical operational issue is to address the question, up until now almost completely neglected by the world’s militaries, of developing detailed concepts of these R2P/ civilian protection operations, which involve neither traditional warfighting (where the object is not to stop violence as such, but to defeat an enemy) and peacekeeping operations (which although these days usually involving much more than the traditional passive monitoring, have still not come to grips with the kind of responses needed to cope with the threat or reality of atrocity crimes). It’s not just a matter of force configuration, but of developing new doctrine, and new kinds of rules of engagement, and new kinds of training.

Generating the Political Will to Act. As always, this is the biggest and hardest piece of unfinished business. The short point I would make is that finding the necessary political will to do anything hard, or expensive, or politically sensitive, or seen as not directly relevant to national interests, is just a given in public affairs, domestically or internationally: its absence should not be a matter for lamentation, but mobilization. Political will is not hiding in a cupboard or under a stone somewhere waiting to be discovered: it has to be painstakingly built.

The key to mobilizing that support, through the media and from decision makers themselves, is to have not just good organization and good lobbying techniques and good contacts, but above all good arguments, intelligently and energetically advanced. Those arguments may be party interest arguments designed to consolidate a government’s vocal domestic base (always an important element in the Bush Administration’s interest in Sudan, such as it has been); national interest arguments (much easier to make now in relation to ‘quarrels in far away countries between people of whom we know nothing’, in Chamberlain’s terms, because of what we do know now about the capacity of failed states, in this globalised world, to be a source of havoc for others); financial arguments (in terms of a million dollars worth of preventive action now saving a billion dollars worth of military intervention later); or even moral arguments (given that however base politicians’ real motives may be, they always like to be seen as acting from higher ones) . We can, if we need to, always justify making R2P a reality on hard-headed, practical, national interest grounds: states that can’t or wont stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of rogue states, or failed or failing states, that can’t or wont stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks.

But at the end of the day the case for R2P rests simply on our common humanity: the impossibility of ignoring the cries of pain and distress of our fellow human beings. For any of us in and around the international community - from individuals to NGOs to national governments to international organizations - to yet again ignore that distress and agony, and to once again make ‘never again’ a cry that rings totally emptily, is to diminish that common humanity to the point of despair. We should be united in our determination to not let that happen, and there is no greater or nobler cause on which any of us could be embarked.

I know that Steve Stedman and his faculty team share that vision, and that when it comes to making idealism realistic in the context of the responsibility to protect those at grave risk, there could be no better academic place anywhere in the world for nurturing the talent we need, and the ideas we need and the commitment we need, than this new Masters Program in International Policy Studies here at Stanford. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to be associated with the launch of this program, and I look forward to tackling your questions.