Out of genocides past and Africa's tumult a controversial but seldom-used diplomatic tool is emerging: The concept that the world has a "responsibility to protect" civilians against their own brutal governments.
At the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
pushed Tuesday for more intervention for the sake of protection.
"The question before us is not whether, but how," Ban told the
assembly, recalling two visits since 2006 to Kigali, Rwanda. The
genocide memorial he saw there marks 100 days of horror in which
more than half a million members of the Tutsi ethnic minority and
moderates from the Hutu majority were slaughtered.
"It is high time to turn the promise of the 'responsibility to
protect' into practice," Ban said.
Rwanda's genocide began hours after a plane carrying Rwandan
President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down as it approached Kigali
on the evening of April 6, 1994. The slaughter ended after rebels,
led by current President Paul Kagame, ousted the extremist Hutu
government that had orchestrated the killings.
"We still find ourselves in a world that has so far been maybe
willing, but less likely committed to stop genocide and similar
crimes," said Jacqueline Murekatete, a human rights activist who
was 9 years old in Rwanda when she lost her entire family to the
Among those questioning the concept has been General Assembly
President Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, a leftist Nicaraguan priest
and former foreign minister who organized a two-day debate starting
Thursday. He issued a four-page "concept note" that made clear
"Colonialism and interventionism used responsibility to protect
arguments," says the paper issued by d'Escoto's office. "National
sovereignty in developing countries is a necessary condition for
stable access to political, social and economic rights, and it took
enormous sacrifices to recover this sovereignty and ensure these
rights for their populations."
William Pace, executive director of the World Federalist
Movement's Institute for Global Policy, said d'Escoto's views are a
"political misuse of the GA presidency" since they contradict the
General Assembly's 2005 endorsement of the 'responsibility to
"It is not a synonym for military intervention," Pace added.
The idea that the world should take responsibility if nations
fail to protect their own population was first promoted by Ban's
predecessor, Kofi Annan, in 1999, citing conflicts in Angola,
Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor.
It gained huge momentum with the African Union's endorsement in
2000. The General Assembly backed it in 2005, though a budget
committee has yet to provide funding for a special adviser's
In 2006, the U.N.'s most powerful body, the 15-nation Security
Council, threw its weight behind the idea in two legally binding
Proponents have recently pushed to implement it in places like
Darfur, Congo, Kenya, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
In May 2008, for example, the council discussed a proposal by
France to authorize the U.N. to enter Myanmar and deliver aid
without waiting for approval from the nation's ruling military
junta. China and Russia, citing issues of sovereignty, blocked the
And in July 2008, Russia and China vetoed U.S.-proposed
sanctions on Zimbabwe's leaders, rejecting an attempt by the global
community to take action against an authoritarian regime widely
criticized for a violent and one-sided presidential election.
At her first appearance before the Security Council in January,
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice used the occasion to emphasize that the
Obama administration takes the concept seriously. Earlier this
month, at the Group of Eight summit in Italy, President Barack
Obama called it "one of the most difficult questions in
There is no "clean formula" for when to act, Obama said, but
there are "exceptional circumstances in which I think the need for
international intervention becomes a moral imperative, the most
obvious example being in a situation like Rwanda where genocide has
Ban advised limiting U.N. action under the 'responsibility to
protect' concept to safeguarding civilians against genocide, war
crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. He
acknowledged the possibility of some nations "misusing these
principles" as excuses to intervene unnecessarily, but said the
challenge before the U.N. is to show that "sovereignty and
responsibility are mutually reinforcing principles."
"Military action is a major last - not first - resort," he
said. "No part of the world has a monopoly on wisdom or
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