U.S. Tries to Water Down UN ‘Right to Protection’ Reform: Global summit wants to add muscle to protect world’s most vulnerable people

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

Published by The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario)

In Darfur and dozens of other strife-torn regions, where local and national authorities either can’t or won’t respond to pleas for protection, no one else currently has the duty to step in. The United Nations Security Council has the option of meeting and debating the pros and cons of responding, but it has no obligation to do so — rendering the right to protection in such places a fiction.

That could begin to change later this month when the World Summit, meeting at the United Nations Sept. 14-16, considers “the responsibility to protect” section of its outcomes statement.

The most recent draft emphasizes that “the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity lies first and foremost with each individual state” but goes on to say that “the international community, through the United Nations, has the obligation to . . . help protect populations.”

There is broad support for this formulation, but the summit’s consensus declaration will require universal acceptance, and the chances for that were dealt a critical setback just three weeks before the summit when the United States, through Ambassador John Bolton, proposed extensive amendments to the key “responsibility to protect” paragraph to make it clear that any help to vulnerable populations coming from the international community should not be regarded as an obligation.

The U.S. formulation says the international community “should be prepared” to get involved if states fail to meet their obligation, and that “the Security Council may out of necessity decide to take action.”

In other words, international action under the formulation proposed by the U.S. would continue to be purely optional and up to the discretion of the Security Council.

The U.S. amendment refers to a “moral responsibility” to help, but rejects the idea that there is an obligation.

Discussion will continue up to and during the summit. Canada, along with the majority of states involved in pre-summit consultations, favours the draft formulation and opposes the U.S. proposed amendments.

The “responsibility to protect” is frequently debated as if it was strictly the question of military intervention, but the central issue is the rights of vulnerable people to protection.

The core principle is that the sovereignty of any state that is the scene of egregious violence against civilians cannot be allowed to be a barrier to external intervention for the purposes of meeting the rights of abused populations to protection and humanitarian relief.


The moral responsibility of humans to help each other is unambiguous and hardly new, but the objective of entrenching an international responsibility or obligation to protect goes beyond this widely accepted, if not widely honoured, sense of a common humanity or a commitment to mutual aid.

The “responsibility to protect” doctrine, most clearly articulated in the 2001 report of the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, is intended to lead the international community beyond good intentions to a new and three-fold recognition:

That people in peril have a right to protection from genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and other large-scale atrocities;

That such a right has meaning only if there is a corresponding obligation to provide protection; and

That, while the primary obligation lies with each state to protect its people, when a state is unable or unwilling to meet its obligation, then that obligation accrues to the international community.

The assertion of this responsibility at the coming summit would be an important move toward the international community actually becoming a community.

© Copyright 2005 Metroland Media Group Ltd.

Spread the Word