Ghosts of Rwanda
Banishing the Rwanda Nightmare: The Responsibility to Gareth Evans

Gareth Evans is president of the International Crisis Group and was co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a group which has laid out for the world community a new framework and new ground rules on when to intervene in humanitarian crises. Read its report The Responsibility to Protect.

Until terrorism overwhelmed international attention after 11 September 2001, the issue which had dominated international relations for a decade 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.

There must be no more Rwandas.  We cannot be content with reports and declarations.  We must, as an international community, be prepared to act. We wont be able to live with ourselves if we do not.

The cases around which the debate centered -- ones both where intervention happened and where it didn't -- are all burnished in our memory. First and foremost there was the disastrously inadequate response to genocide in Rwanda in 1994. But there was also the debacle of the international intervention in Somalia in 1993, and the utter inability of the U.N. presence to prevent murderous ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995.

These were not the only cases, but they are the ones we remember most starkly -- Rwanda above all. None was well or confidently handled by the international community. When intervention did occur, it was too often too little too late, misconceived, poorly resourced and poorly executed.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, deeply troubled by the issues and the inconsistency of the international response, in 1999 and again in 2000 challenged the General Assembly 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?"

"The Responsibility to Protect"

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 U.S. foundations, the assistance of the British and Swiss Governments and the cooperation of many others, established in September 2000 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which I co-chaired along with the Algerian diplomat and U.N. Special Adviser Mohamed Sahnoun. The Commission published its final report in December 2001.

The Commission's most important single contribution was its reconceptualisation of the core concept of "the right to intervene" as, rather, "the responsibility to protect." To put the issue in this way immediately places the focus where it always ought to be -- not on those exercising power, for better or worse, but on the victims of conflict, who need the assistance of others if they are to be protected from suffering.

We argued that the primary responsibility for that protection lies with the sovereign state. But if that state is unable or unwilling to protect its population, or is itself the cause of the threat, the responsibility to protect those people shifts to the international community of states.

The ICISS Commission did not see the responsibility to react, including through military intervention, as the only way to fulfil the responsibility to protect. There is an initial and overriding responsibility to prevent the risk to the population arising in the first place, both through longer-term development assistance or shorter-term political, diplomatic or economic responses. And if prevention fails, and a more coercive intervention must take place, then there is also a responsibility to follow through and rebuild, with the time and effort necessary to ensure that the original problem does not recur.

The threshold for military intervention must also be high: large-scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, or large scale ethnic cleansing, actual or apprehended, pursued by forced expulsion or other means. And it must always be carried out in a principled way, having regard always to prudential criteria of right intention, last resort, proportional means and reasonable prospect of the benefit of an intervention clearly outweighing its harm.

If military intervention does become necessary, every reasonable effort should be made to obtain the authorization of the U.N. Security Council. Where the Council drags its heels, action by regional organizations within their area of jurisdiction, subject to getting subsequent approval by the Security Council, is another option consistent with the Charter, as would be approval by the General Assembly. But the Security Council itself is the most clearly empowered and capable source of authority, and it should be prepared to exercise that authority in appropriate cases.

If it does not -- in particular, if it fails to discharge its responsibility to protect by authorizing action in conscience shocking situations crying out for it -- the Security Council has to face the prospect that one or more concerned states will act without the U.N.'s authority. And they will have to further confront the reality that if such action is seen to be successful, the stature and credibility of the U.N. will be bound to suffer. This is not a legal discipline, but it may be an effective political one.

The report does not seek formal changes to the Charter, or new formal instruments, but it does argue for some fundamental changes in practice, including the adoption of a set of guidelines by the Security Council for dealing with (and using the veto in relation to) military intervention for human protection purposes. It also argues for the General Assembly adopting a declaratory resolution laying out the relevant principles of action, as a useful step toward their ultimate acceptance as customary international law.

"No More Rwandas"

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, that when the international community is needed to protect people at large scale risk of losing their lives or identities, it will be there.

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

If the ICISS 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.

31 March 2004

Related Readings:

"Responsibility to Protect: Engaging Civil Society"
The World Federalist Movement offers resources to increase awareness of the ICISS report and encourage continued discussion of its concepts.This site gathers speeches concerning the Responsibility to Protect and gives reports of its consultations hosted by world organizations.

"Shifting Security Parameters In The 21st Century"
A January 2004 paper by Gareth Evans. With terrorism, WMD and nations unable to protect citizens, Evans says sovereign states must learn to apply criteria within the Responsibility to Protect to respond effectively, consistently, and so reduce pressure on the U.S. to be the world's peacekeeper.

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posted april 1, 2004

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