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[Lee Jae-min] New concept for action against genocide

Although we live in an age of abbreviation, few people will have heard of the term “R2P.” I did not have any clue when I first heard it, I have to confess. R2P stands for “Responsibility to Protect.” This is a new concept raised by the international community after having observed the ugly failure of the international community to take appropriate actions during genocides in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. 

This concept sets forth a noble cause: A state has a responsibility to protect its people from grave atrocities such as genocide and, more importantly, if the state fails to implement its obligation, the international community has the obligation to step in to protect the people.

This concept was solidified when the U.N. Security Council endorsed it with Resolution 1674 in April 2006, followed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s blessing to the principle through the release in January 2009 of a U.N. report called “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect.” The concept as espoused by these U.N. documents allows the U.N. Security Council to take action to protect people from the threat of their own governments, if necessary.

The Security Council can also authorize member states to take necessary action. Some resistance to the concept has been muffled by the sanctity of the cause of protecting civilians from unspeakable atrocities and by the compatibility of the idea with the U.N. Charter to the extent an action is authorized or taken by the Security Council. In fact, the U.N. Charter allows the Security Council to take all kinds of actions including military intervention.

The current situation in Libya has become the first instance of an actual application of this concept. Angered and concerned by the Libyan leader’s threat to exterminate opposition forces, last Friday the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 that imposes a no-fly zone over Libya and authorizes member states to use “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in the North African country. The resolution was immediately adhered to by the United States, the United Kingdom and France whose military assets conducted air raids against key military targets in Libya. Secretary-General Ban also mentions that the U.N. Security Council resolution is the implementation of the R2P principle.

Perhaps no one can deny the urgency of protecting the people in Libya under the circumstances. Surprisingly, however, the international community’s reaction to the military intervention last weekend was quite mixed. Russia and China, the other two permanent members in the Security Council, who abstained from voting instead of blocking the resolution with their veto power, officially expressed regret over the military action. At the same time, India, Brazil and Germany also abstained from the voting in the Security Council. The African Union also requested that the military action be suspended as soon as possible. The League of Arab States does not seem supportive of the operation either. For his part, Moammar Gadhafi appeared on TV and pledged a long war against the foreign aggression by referring to Libya’s right to self-defense under the same U.N. Charter.

The apparent divide among major powers in the face of the imminent threat to the civilian population in Libya describes the slippery road for the concept of R2P. Core questions raised by the critics of R2P include who can make a decision as to whether a particular situation warrants the invocation of R2P and what are the kinds of perils against which the concept can be invoked. With respect to the first question, it is easy to say in abstract that the Security Council should make the final decision. But if a less than optimal level of consensus is confirmed in a specific instance despite the existence of a decision by the Security Council, a controversy seems unavoidable. Concerning the second question, when military action targets the residence of the leader, a challenge can be raised about whether the focus of the action is to change the leadership or the protection of the people. Maybe in many instances both of them are closely connected, but R2P’s objective, as it stands now, is the protection of people. This is not to say that we have to turn a blind eye to a dictator, but it is not entirely clear yet whether R2P can be expanded to cover all these instances.

The international community committed a critical mistake by being passive spectators in Rwanda and Srebrenica. In light of this experience, R2P is the right direction for us to go. But the specific parameters of the concept will be tested through Operation Odyssey Dawn and similar future events. As the code name itself states, maybe now is the dawn of the development of this important principle. 

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law, Hanyang University. ― Ed.
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