In 1994 about 800 000 people were brutally killed in Rwanda during a period of just one hundred days. After this episode the UN officials, heads of state and civil society all agreed that we could never let this happen again.
But it did. In 2003 a humanitarian emergency developed in Darfur in western Sudan because of a guerrilla conflict. Some 300 000 may have died and the head of state, together with other high officials, has been accused by the International Criminal Court for both crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Security Council finally did respond but only after years had gone by with hundreds of thousands killed and millions of displaced.
What everybody is currently discussing is Syria. Up to 9000 people have now been killed and tens of thousands protesters imprisoned. The UN Security Council has so far been unable to even pass a resolution condemning the violence, let alone demanding the resignation of president Al-Assad.
One might argue that military intervention is not the only way to stop this kind of crisis. On the contrary we should instead focus of creating a world where these kinds of situations are less likely to emerge. For example the global north might start with stopping to actively supporting, financing and selling weapons to brutal, oppressive regimes. Further we could focus much more resources on preventing conflict by easing poverty, work against discrimination and oppression and try to give people a dignified life with prospects for the future. Most rich countries give a ridiculously low amount in foreign aid not to mention working against the interests of pour countries in international forums.
But the question is what happens when it’s too late for all of this. At the point in time were one ethnic group is already out on the streets killing another with machetes, the point where it’s obvious that the regime in a country is supporting the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and it does not react to diplomatic or economic pressure or the point where a country is already on the verge of civil war. At this point it might not help to withdraw the support for the regime and it’s definitely too late for long-term improvements of the conditions for the population.
The UN concept the responsibility to protect says that the international community always has to react when genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes or crimes against humanity are being committed. This is not something it can chose to prioritize if convenient but a responsibility. No state should be able to hide behind sovereignty as these crimes do not only concern only that state but the entire international community. The concept also says that the reaction should be proportionate. The international community should start by condemning the violence, diplomatic sanctions, weapons embargoes, referring the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court etc. But it also leaves military intervention as a last resort. For when other means doesn’t help and this is the only way to stop mass atrocity crimes from being committed.
This is not always easy to implement though. In order to be legal intervention has to be decided on by the United Nations Security Council. There there are 15 members and at least 9 members have to vote in favor for a resolution to be carried. But in order for a resolution to be carried it’s also necessary that none of the five permanent members: the US, China, Russia, Britain or France, votes against.
This is a problem with the responsibility to protect because as a universal norm it should be applied universally and consistently. But as the Security Council works today there could never be an intervention in any of the five permanent member states as they could just use their veto. That means that the principle is not really very universal as it can be used against the regime in Sudan for what happens in Darfur but not against the regime of Russia for what happens in Chechnya. As all the five permanent members have to agree the principle also cannot help but being used selectively, according to the national interests of these powers.
Reform of the Security Council is not likely to happen any time soon. This is mainly because the states gaining the most from the current system, i.e. the states with veto, is likely to use their veto to stop any deal where they would lose out. Besides, the unpleasant truth might be that the UN needs the world’s great powers to approve its decisions to be able to implement them, even if it doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly those five. For making the principle of the responsibility to protect universal and consistently applied it might be better to have a court decide when military intervention is legal. But the Security Council is unlikely to cede that kind of power and intervention can’t happen anyway if there is not political will.
In conclusion there are many ways to increase the chance of making military intervention unnecessary and thus saving both money and human lives. But, military intervention might be necessary in some cases when it’s too late for other measures. When mass atrocity crimes are about to happen and we have the possibility to act, we somehow bear a responsibility for what happens if we chose not to. The fact that we cannot currently manage to implement the principle of the responsibility to protect in a totally fair and consistent way cannot be an excuse for not implementing it when we can manage. Measures have to be proportionate but all measures must be considered if we are to finally create a world where these kinds of crimes do not happen ever again.