Shadow Government

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Does the UN still value the “responsibility to protect”?

By Kristen Silverberg There is an interesting piece in today’s New York Times about the efforts of many members of the U.N. General Assembly to undermine the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This idea, which was endorsed unanimously by heads of state during the World Summit of 2005, says, in essence, that governments have a responsibility to ...

By Kristen Silverberg

There is an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the efforts of many members of the U.N. General Assembly to undermine the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This idea, which was endorsed unanimously by heads of state during the World Summit of 2005, says, in essence, that governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from grave human rights abuses like genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity -- and that if or when they fail, the international community, working through the Security Council, has a responsibility to act. Many countries believe this concept will invite Western meddling in internal affairs, and so General Assembly President D'Escoto and former Indian Permanent Representative Sen have rallied a coalition in opposition to the concept.  

There was one line in the Times piece that, I think, bears correcting. The author says that the Bush administration "disliked the doctrine on the ground that it might tie American hands in foreign policy decisions." In fact, the Bush administration endorsed R2P in 2005 and worked throughout the administration to see the principle put into practice. Secretary Rice, for example, cited R2P in calling on the Security Council to act in Darfur, and has many times cited her disappointment that we were not more successful in ensuring effective R2P action. We worked with other Security Council members to reaffirm R2P in U.N. Security Council resolution 1674, and as an assistant secretary of state, I endorsed the concept publicly many times. 

By Kristen Silverberg

There is an interesting piece in today’s New York Times about the efforts of many members of the U.N. General Assembly to undermine the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This idea, which was endorsed unanimously by heads of state during the World Summit of 2005, says, in essence, that governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from grave human rights abuses like genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity — and that if or when they fail, the international community, working through the Security Council, has a responsibility to act. Many countries believe this concept will invite Western meddling in internal affairs, and so General Assembly President D’Escoto and former Indian Permanent Representative Sen have rallied a coalition in opposition to the concept.  

There was one line in the Times piece that, I think, bears correcting. The author says that the Bush administration "disliked the doctrine on the ground that it might tie American hands in foreign policy decisions." In fact, the Bush administration endorsed R2P in 2005 and worked throughout the administration to see the principle put into practice. Secretary Rice, for example, cited R2P in calling on the Security Council to act in Darfur, and has many times cited her disappointment that we were not more successful in ensuring effective R2P action. We worked with other Security Council members to reaffirm R2P in U.N. Security Council resolution 1674, and as an assistant secretary of state, I endorsed the concept publicly many times. 

If anything, I think the Bush team was more aggressive than most U.S. administrations in pressing both the responsibility of states to protect their citizens from human rights abuses and the responsibility of the Security Council to act when governments fail. For most of U.S. history, the human rights abuses in Burma, for example, would not have fit within the U.S. government’s definition of a "threat to international peace and security" sufficient to trigger U.N. Security Council jurisdiction. President Bush believed that human rights abuses may meet this standard, and so we led the effort to place Burma on the Security Council’s agenda for the first time in history and even pressed a Security Council Resolution on the subject to the point of provoking a double Russian-Chinese veto.

Whatever the outcome of the General Assembly debate, the U.S. should continue to work to defend and strengthen the international community’s ability to take action under R2P. Columbia Law School professor Matthew Waxman is currently finishing a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, due out this fall, with a number of important recommendations on how the U.S. can move ahead on R2P.

I have one modest suggestion to throw into the mix: The U.S. should make clear that it will not support any country for U.N. Security Council permanent membership without a demonstrated commitment to R2P. This means countries that have worked to shield Burma and Zimbabwe and Iran from international scrutiny need not apply. (Congress should also make clear that this is a requirement of U.S. ratification of any Security Council expansion proposal.) R2P action is challenging enough under the current membership. If the Obama administration is serious about supporting R2P, it needs a Security Council with members fully committed to effective action.

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