Sovereignty as the Responsibility to Prevent, Protect and Rebuild

Tasneem Jamal

Glyn Berry

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2004 Volume 25 Issue 1

A version of this paper was given in New York in November 2003. Glyn Berry is Minister-Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations. 

Perhaps because of Canada’s traditional openness to international engagement, our strong belief in the rule of law in international relations, and the importance we accord to international institutions, we have been more inclined than many to take up causes which relate to the need to remember that no state, government, or institution has a legitimate rationale for its existence apart from the interests of the individual human beings for whose benefit they are supposed to act.

It can be no surprise, therefore, that when Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his Millennium Address to the UN General Assembly in April 2000, challenged the international community to debate seriously the question of humanitarian intervention in light of the abominations in Rwanda, Srebrenica. and Kosovo, and to examine the specific role and responsibility of the UN when confronted by such tragedies, the Canadian Government considered the challenge a critical one to which a credible international response was imperative. Hence the announcement by Prime Minister Chrétien, in his address to the High-Level session of the UN General Assembly in September 2000, of the establishment of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. This Commission was designed as an independent body to support the work of the UN, but was in part funded and heavily supported by Canada.

The Commission argued for a redefinition of sovereignty to include the obligation of all governments to protect their citizens, and for the obligation of the international community to intervene, if necessary – and militarily if absolutely necessary – where this duty is egregiously violated. According to the Commission, inherent in the very concept of sovereignty is the obligation to ensure the equal protection of all the residents of a state from harm. This concept is not new. It lies at the very heart of the Genocide Convention of 1948.

But the Commission report was careful in its formulation of the essential conditions for international intervention of any kind, conditions which are not quantifiable but provide essential benchmarks for political decision-makers.

First and foremost, the even more critical obligation to prevent must have failed to remove critical threats to civilian populations. In addition, in referring to the exercise both of the responsibility to prevent and the responsibility to protect, the Commission emphasized that less intrusive and less coercive measures should be attempted before more intrusive and more coercive efforts are made.

The Report established a just-cause threshold contingent on the scale of harm to civilian population, whether in terms of loss of life or the various forms of ethnic cleansing. It also established a number of precautionary principles relating to the genuineness of the primary intention, reasonable prospects for realizing benefits greater than any harm resulting from intervention, and action being taken under legitimate authority. Finally, any form of intervention carries with it the international obligation to rebuild.

Acceptance of these principles will be a long, hard slog. One fear is that they may in some way be used to justify interventions whose goals are not primarily humanitarian; or that domestic problems regarded as exclusively internal may come under the glare of international attention.

The existence of problems has not meant that we have desisted from using the UN as a platform. For example, on April 7, 2003, the ninth anniversary of the beginning of the Rwanda genocide, Canadian Ambassador to the UN Paul Heinbecker and his Rwandan counterpart, Ambassador Kamanzi, co-hosted a seminar on the lessons of that tragic event. In September Prime Minster Chrétien highlighted the Report and its recommendations in his General Assembly address, and both he and Foreign Minister Graham raised the issues highlighted in it with many of their counterparts.

And you can be sure that with the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide next year we will be working hard with others to ensure that we not only commemorate the tragedy and remember the victims, that we not only repeat the mantra of ‘never again,’ but that we begin to put into place mechanisms to given meaning to such easily uttered words.

So we are in the early stages of a long-term project to change norms, and this happens very slowly even at the national level. We are also not limiting ourselves to the UN by any means. We will, as in the past 18 months or so, be sponsoring events and projects in various regions that have responsibility to protect at their centre. Norms change in many ways, not only through the interaction of governments. Members of civil society, including religious organizations and institutions, can play a vital part.

First, faith-based groups might work to familiarize themselves and their constituents with the Report. The Report should be a key vehicle for the campaigns of faith-based groups for a more morally based approach by national governments and international organizations.

Second, there will be events around the world marking the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Plans are emerging for events in Washington, DC, and there are certainly plans for events in cities across Canada, some affiliated with the global “Remember Rwanda” movement. The Commission of the African Union has called for a day of remembrance in African countries, and there is likely to be an African-sponsored resolution in the UN General Assembly declaring April 7 a “day of reflection.” The World Council might want to consider making April 7, 2004 a “day of reflection” in churches around the world, not only on Rwanda and similar events, but also on the international obligation to prevent any repetition.

Third, whatever the merits or demerits of the Iraq intervention, you should remember and be clear that it is not an example of Responsibility to Protect in operation, and that this example should not obfuscate the debate.

Fourth, concerned civil society organizations should touch base with others with the same agenda. There is a nascent R2P NGO coalition, contactable through the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy. The initiative taken by the World Federalist Movement has deepened the engagement of the NGO community on R2P, resulting in: increased distribution of the report; focussed NGO discussion and analysis of protection issues; and prepared for more consolidated advocacy with respect to the use of force in response to mass atrocities.

Last but not least, educate your members, the media, and others on what really happened in places such as Rwanda. The UN is all too often accorded all the blame when any examination of the public record, as well as statements by former central players such as Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, show a much more complex picture in which the Security Council, rather than the UN General Assembly, made the critical decisions that allowed such an appalling abomination to proceed. The same can be said of Srebrenica, Somalia, and other cases in which blame has often been attributed exclusively to the UN as a matter of convenience, laziness, or ignorance, the evidence notwithstanding. Until we acknowledge why such tragedies happen, we will never be in a position to prevent their recurrence.

There is much talk in these troubled times of the struggle in which we are all engaged against international terrorism. And so there should be. But lest we forget, can there be any word but ‘terrorism’ for the butchery of the innocents in Rwanda in 1994? I do not think so.

See here for the text of The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

See here for information on the World Federalist Movement’s project “Preventing Conflict, Protecting Civilians” can be found at .

See Rwanda/main_pf.htm” target=_blank>here for information about “Remembering Rwanda: The Rwanda 10th Anniversary Memorial Project.”

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