Responsibility to protect:
A natural humanitarian impulse

(These are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of the United Nations)

An IDP camp in North in the immediate aftermath of war . (File photo)

The doctrine of the responsibility to protect was distorted by Rajiva Wijesinha’s venomous mind into a tool for attacking Rama Mani, ICES and myself , making us into targets of hate and venom. For this he will never be forgiven. That respectable people bought into Rajiva’s arguments and even more respectable people did nothing to stop the madness, leading to Rama Mani’s expulsion from the country with seven days notice, was also telling. He continues in his obsession with ICES and its internal matters- which is none of his business- and his near racist constructions of Tamil "mata haris" even today.

All his rantings and ravings about ICES and the responsibility to protect is pure fiction, a construction made for collective consumption. Playing on the fears, hatreds and public prejudice he created a narrative for Sinhala nationalist consumption. Now he is trying to make it an eternal myth, one of the heroic triumphs in the victory against the LTTE. Even though it is pure fiction, he is trying to make it carry the marker of truth. There was absolutely no desire on my part or Rama Mani or ICES to bring in UN peacekeepers, or international intervention or anything of that sort. The ICES activities, I gather, were only an attempt to be part of the international conversation about a doctrine that had recently been adopted by the Summit of world leaders and which was and still is being discussed and debated before it takes its final form. The doctrine was uncertain, no structures existed for its implementation, everything was, and is still, up in the air. This attempt to be part of an international conversation was made into a diabolic plot by those with a paranoid state of mind.

Now that we do not have to fear UN peacekeepers and international forces-( something we would never have to fear because of the able diplomacy of people like Ambassador Palliakkara who without much kudos and fanfare steered the issue through the Security Council without alienating anyone), perhaps we could begin a rational,as opposed to a polemical, discussion on the responsibility to protect. This discussion is taking place all over the world since it is an issue that is currently being discussed and finalized at the United Nations.

Responsibility to protect is rooted in the most basic of human impulses- the desire to protect the weak and the vulnerable and those who are at the receiving end of brutality. To say this is "western" is sometimes to imply that third world people do not have or value this basic impulse. Surely that cannot be true. Buddhism perhaps more than any other religion values the need to be compassionate to the weak. And it is not only western countries that have marched in to save others. We must remember that it was Tanzania that marched into Uganda to save its people from Idi Amin; that it was Vietnam that marched into Cambodia to save its people from Pol Pot and India into Bangladesh. In recent times, the terrible failure in Rwanda and the unilateral action in terms of Iraq is what prompted Secretary General Kofi Annan to try and develop a rational coherent doctrine that would guide international action, not leaving it to the whims and fancies of individual states.

Yes, Mr. Wijesinha, I am a strong proponent of this natural human impulse which has resulted in doctrines such as the responsibility to protect- though I completely agree with those who state that the how is also very important- how do we structure this doctrine so that it will be applied in fair and equitable manner. In discussing this issue we must also try and see what is best for the international system. Even in Sri Lanka, we do not know what the future holds- what if we are invaded and terrible massacres take place? What if Prabhakaran won the war and we had a fascist state in the North? We must not be so narrowly focused on our present interests that we do not see the bigger picture and the need for appropriate international measures.

There are many models of Responsibility to Protect being discussed but the recent report of the Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect is what I subscribe to and was a part of. It holds out three pillars- the first pillar is that responsibility to protect is a duty of sovereignty and the nation state has the first responsibility to protect its citizens. If this continues to fail then the second pillar comes into being- international diplomacy and activity, the developments in Kenya are seen as an example of this pillar, and if that fails there is the possibility of international intervention but only with the approval of the Security Council. However, the Report stresses the point that the primary activity will be pillars one and two. That is what the debate is about to day and continues under the expert guidance of the Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Responsibility to protect, Mr. Ed Luck.

One of the arguments put forward against the responsibility to protect is the claim that it violates the sovereignty of nations. When the UN was created in 1947, sovereignty was a very strong doctrine but much has developed since then. The Universal Declaration and the Covenants on human rights were the first inroads but the main thrust came in the 1960s. Contrary to the belief that the fight against sovereignty was spearheaded by western countries, it was actually spearheaded by African countries in the struggle against Apartheid. The first mechanism piercing the veil of sovereignty was directed at South Africa. After that the disappearances in Latin America in the 1970s led to the next phase of expansion and finally in the 1990s there was a large growth of human rights mechanisms and oversight. In 2005 this was recognized structurally in the United Nations with the Human Rights Council being raised to the same level as the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. Sovereignty is no longer a justification for the violation of human rights. Human rights has become a trigger for international action and of course with the Geneva Conventions, war crimes were always a trigger with the provision for universal jurisdiction.

The attempt by many in Sri Lanka to day to depict human rights and the international struggle against war crimes as a western campaign does not do justice to so many in developing societies that have fought for freedom and justice. As I said the campaign against apartheid, the terrible disappearances in Latin America during military regimes, the campaign against torture were not only waged by western countries- these are collective struggles which we should not seek to diminish even if we are doing our job in defending the interests of the country. And what is sadder, all the commentaries on responsibility to protect and human rights, do not say a word about the victim.

As Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and now as Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict I have met so many victims of terrible violations and heinous crimes in every conflict zone in the world. These intellectual arguments on the responsibility to protect and sovereignty just ring hollow when you actually meet innocent victims. They are a reminder that sovereign nation states are not the only entities that matter; there are victims. If we care about the world, we must create the conditions so that heinous violations do not occur and if they do occur that there is redress. We cannot become a nation of callous people and turn our back on human rights. Even in the rhetoric we use to defend national interest, do we need to be so insensitive to the suffering of people?

The other argument that is used and has some validity is the argument that there are double standards in the world and until everyone is equal we cannot support doctrines like the responsibility to protect. The west, it is said is getting away with murder in Afghanistan and Iraq and nothing is being done and only Sri Lanka and other countries are targeted. This is not necessarily true- every incident in Afghanistan is in investigated by the human rights department in the United Nations Mission and they are given free access. These reports are often included in the reports of the Secretary General to the Security Council. International outcry was among the reasons that General McCrystal in Afghanistan has moved clearly away from the "shock and awe" tactics of the past into a strategy where protection of civilians is now centre stage. A lot more needs to be done with regard to drone attacks and other violations. Contrary to the belief in Sri lanka, the UN and its agencies continue to raise these issues both in public and private statements. However, in the political bodies of the United Nations, where nation states vote there is a reluctance to broach these topics.

The solution to double standards and to protect national interest in terms of humanitarian military intervention is to ensure that structures will exist to prevent abuse. At the moment any such "military" action requires the vote of the Security Council. Only situations where everyone agrees, including China and Russia- would be eligible for such military intervention. One must agree that a situation where all five members would agree that there is a need for such intervention would be a particularly heinous situation. All members of the Council and the General Assembly, however, do believe in the first two pillars of R2P including the need for robust diplomacy.

Nevertheless we must admit that for those of us working in the field, double standards, which exist in many forms in the international system, remain an area of serious concern. How does one respond to double standards?. The argument in Sri Lanka is that because there are double standards, we should reject the framework of the responsibility to protect, international human rights and refuse their development. Some scholars have argued, because the international system is so skewed, any sort of international humanitarian action or intervention is tainted.

Again, I would like to speak from the field. International action does make a difference in many parts of the world. One of our duties is protecting people and in my case children. To say that because we cannot protect all the children all of the time, we should not protect children when we can seems a little disingenuous. Surely that can’t be the approach. One child saved is surely worth a doctrine. In any criminal justice system there are double standards. It is well known that poor people are far more likely to be prosecuted, but does that mean we throw out the criminal law? Surely the more enlightened approach is to say yes there are double standards, we will work to make them more equitable but we will continue to protect children where we can. We cannot afford to throw out these doctrines, they save too many lives.

A case in point is Alice from Rwanda. Alice lived in a middle class home when the Hutu interhamwe came into her home. They raped her senseless and left her to die. When she awoke her whole family was dead. A neighbour found her and entered her into a hospital. When the nurses thought she was a Tusti she was turned out of the hospital. She went into the jungle and lived for several days. She found a machete and had to chop off her gangrened hand herself. She lived on grass and berries until she ran into some soldiers of the RUF. I met Alice in Kigali where she works with women victims of the war. The terrible truth is that Alice could have been spared this terrible reality. The General in charge of Peacekeeping knew where all the arms caches were. He was just asking for a signal to seize the arms and to try and restore law and order. The signal never came. One million people died and the whole region remains destabilized. Many of you may argue- so be it- but ,having looked into the eyes of Alice, I must say surely "never again".. .

Responsibility to protect is now being discussed and its contours are at present being imagined and constructed. It is important that we be part of the debate. I have deliberately avoided any reference to Sri Lanka because I feel that our attitude to our own conflict colours what we feel about the doctrine. Now that the war is over, let us restore some sobriety and balance to our dealings with the outside world on issues such as these and let our diplomats be true to our values and have the freedom to work toward what is right not only for a future Sri Lanka but also for the world.

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