Sovereignty and Responsibility to Protect

By Ken Simons | 2003-01-01 12:00:00

Just don't call it "humanitarian intervention." Military intervention may sometimes be moral or even necessary (on this question there is no consensus) but at best it can hardly be compared to the humane tasks of bandaging wounds, evacuating flood victims, or vaccinating children. Relief organizations such as the International Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières object to having armies share their status as "humanitarian" organizations.

Yet the government-led human rights abuses in Srebrenica, Rwanda, and Kosovo created a more serious discussion about the necessity of international military intervention designed to protect people from "democide" -- the massive killing of citizens by their state apparatus itself. This was one of the burning controversies in the realm of international diplomacy until the post-September 11 interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq shifted the focus.


This debate primarily involves the implications of military intervention for sovereignty -- a principle that has been the acknowledged norm of inter-state relations since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. It has been accepted that each state must have the capacity to make final decisions for the people and resources within its territory. However, since World War II, the authority of states has been been increasingly compromised by their participation in international institutions -- though officially these bodies, such as the United Nations, enshrine the sovereignty of member states. Indeed, admission to the UN is the highest indication that a regime is accepted within the community of nations. A sovereign state is guaranteed exclusive jurisdiction within its borders and other states are not supposed to intervene in its internal affairs.

But what if such a sovereign state systematically brutalizes large numbers of its own people? This eventuality has to be taken seriously, in view of the long-term shift from international to internal warfare. By 2001, according to the SIPRI Yearbook 2002, all of the 15 most deadly conflicts were intra-state conflicts. Moreover, the proportion of civilians to military killed in war increased from about one in ten at 1900 to about nine in ten by the year 2000. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, Secretary General Kofi Annan said, "The sovereignty of States must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights."

Yet, not surprisingly, such suggestions are followed by acrimonious debates, for states are generally anxious to defend their sovereignty, while human rights organizations, on the other hand, frequently would prefer to see it curbed.

Rising to the challenge, in September 2000, on the initiative of then Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, Canada took the initiative to establish a high level committee to address this issue: the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) -- now known more simply as "Responsibility to Protect." The project was assisted by Britain, Switzerland, and numerous other countries, and was financially supported by major American foundations. It was co-chaired by Gareth Evans, formerly Foreign Minister of Australia, and UN Special Adviser Mohamed Sahnoun. The objective was to produce a guide to international action whenever such human rights were egregiously violated -- yet a guide that would be both credible and acceptable to governments.

By December of the next year, the commission had re-formulated the doctrine of sovereignty in a way that did, indeed, show promise of being acceptable. Its report was published as Responsibility to Protect. As Gareth Evans explained the group's innovative solution to theimpasse,

"The conceptual starting point in this endeavor has been to turn the whole debate on its head, and to recharacterize it not as an argument about the 'right to intervene' but rather about the 'responsibility to protect' -- a responsibility owed by all sovereign states to their own citizens in the first instance, but one that must be picked up by the international community of states if that first tier responsibility is abdicated, or incapable of exercise....

"Thinking of sovereignty as responsibility has a threefold significance. First, it implies that the state authorities are responsible for the functions of protecting the safety and lives of citizens and promotion of their welfare. Secondly, it suggests that the national political authorities are responsible to their citizens internally, and to the international community through the UN. And thirdly, it means that the agents of state are responsible for their actions; that is to say, they are accountable for their acts of commission and omission."

This way of thinking about sovereignty is not, of course, altogether new. The concept of human security had already been recognized widely, and standards of conduct for states had been codified in such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even the strongest supporters of the traditional notion of sovereignty have not claimed that states have an unlimited right to do whatever they want to their own citizens. Still, the new formulation spoke of "responsibility to protect" rather than "right to intervene," and this formulation was far more favorable to those seeking to protect communities from violence and abuse.


Nevertheless, the new phraseology certainly did not resolve all controversial issues. The ancient historical debate over the legitimacy of fighting becomes relevant whenever the possibility of military intervention arises, whatever the rationale for it may be. In defending the morality of intervening in such crises, the commission simply adopted the 1600-year-old Augustinian "Just War Doctrine," without explicitly designating the principles' origin as Christian. The criteria for condoning military violence were these six: just cause, right intention, last resort, proportionality, reasonable prospects, andright authority.

The commision's document, Responsibility to Protect, has met with widespread, if vague, approval. The question is, how can it become formally recognized as an official guide for action, and effectively part of international law?. The follow-up implementation of the document was left undecided, but Canada's present foreign minister, Bill Graham, is fully committed to pressing forward with it as a matter of high priority. A unit within the Department for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, headed by Patrick Whitman, is organizing activities to advance its principles. Minister Graham addressed the General Assembly last month, mentioning Responsibility to Protect.

Canada's Follow-up Activities

Canada's efforts are going forward on two tracks. First, Canada is working with other governments at the United Nations to encourage the formal consideration of the document by the General Assembly. It is not clear what form its endorsement might take -- possibly as a resolution or a declaration of policy. (The document is too broad to become a treaty.) Second, Whitman's unit is working with policy institutes and non-governmental organizations to promote more discussion and advocacy of these policies within civil society.

Responsibility to Protect was taken up recently by the Security Council at its annual retreat, but these events are closed and the public is never informed about the discussions.

The document was not written with terrorism specifically in mind, nor with a view to the possibility of intervention in Afghanistan or Iraq -- but primarily in the light of Rwanda and Kosovo. In fact, these newer crises have somewhat distracted from the document, which has some elements that apply to Iraq and Afghanistan, but in most respects not. The Iraq situation, which seems to be heading toward war, is more of a traditional threat to international security than the kind of intra-state crisis that the commission addressed.

Last March, Science for Peace and Pugwash Canada held a one-day meeting on Responsibility to Protect. One of the commission's members, Mme. Gisele Côte-Harper, spoke to the members about the process and the results. Two other speakers, Dr. Peter Langille and Dr. Walter Dorn, analyzed its implications, which were then discussed by the membership of both organizations. A report on that meeting can be located at the Pugwash Canada web site: In early November, Parliamentarians Global Action met in Ottawa to consider both the International Criminal Court and Responsibility to Protect. Some 80 or 90 parliamentarians from around the world attended this gathering to discuss ways of codifying its principles and making them into a regular feature of international law.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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