CEPRID

The UN reforms in circle: “responsibility to protect”

Friday 30 October 2009 by CEPRID

Alberto Cruz

CEPRID

The Nobel Prize awarded to the United States President is a sarcastic joke ; they say he received it for his work in favour of a New World Order and for his “move towards multilateralism”. But if anyone has worked hard for that New World Order and for multilateralism so as to earn that prize - for what it is worth, being as disposable as all the others on offer from Western institutions (until now only the Vietnamese Foreign Minister Le Duc Tho has been dignified enough to reject it in 1973 when it was awarded to him jointly with Henry Kissinger for the peace agreement in Vietnam, although the war still continued for another two years) – then it is Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, who has just left the post of President of the UN General Assembly. During his period, the multinational organization has tried to recover from the serious setbacks to which the West as a whole, those pompous arrogant countries calling themselves “the international community”, has delivered since the war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

D’Escoto’s last months as President of the 63rd Session of the UN General Assembly will go down in the history of international relations for having set in train two initiatives that upset the West a great deal. First, he organized of a conference on the global financial and economic crisis and its impact on development (New York, June 24th-26th) and second, he invited distinguished intellectuals like Jean Bricmont, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Noam Chomsky, among others, to debate – in September - the forever intellectually dessicated UN diplomatic representatives on the new strategy the West wants to impose on international relations : “the responsibility to protect”.

Of these two initiatives the never well-advised “communications media”, always under attack, did not publish a single word. While we, unfortunately, depend on them to know what we are supposed to say and think, how we should behave, how we should dress. Or even the opposite. So on these two initiatives we will not have an opinion at all. An error, a crass error, to have as points of reference these “communications media” that we despise so and yet on which we depend like drug addicts do for their daily fix. We repeat over and again until subsequently the latest tsunami overtakes us, catching us unawares, flattening us. We are great at post mortem analysis of what has already happened and dreadful at working out inductive hypotheses on what might come to pass.

D’Escoto tried to turn that around despite being well aware that the conference on the global crisis would only have theoretical influence because it is practically forbidden for the UN General Assembly to involve itself in international finances – an exclusive prerogative of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. This despite Article 13 of the UN Charter, which states that the General Assembly “will make recommendations aimed at promoting international cooperation in economic, social, cultural, educational and health spheres” - an article left unapplied for the last 30 years. Despite that, D’Escoto tried to make the UN turn into a really inclusive and democratic forum. “We don’t want the G-8 or the G-20 to be the only ones to speak and decide, we respect their criteria, we listen to them but in a real democracy its is the majority that decides, that is why I began saying that what should impose itself is the voice of the G-192, of all the members of the UN...So there is a good impetus for the meeting which has been convened at the highest level because it is a battle that has to be taken up by the United Nations so there can be democratic participation in the design of the new global financial, monetary, commercial and economic architecture”, he declared to Granma (1) prior to the realization of the conference.

This is not the moment to speak about the conference’s content, in which Joseph Stiglitz had a leading role, to mention only one of the participants, but rather to talk about what closed D’Escoto’s Presidency with real distinction : his approach to the issue of “responsibility to protect”, a concept adopted by a world summit held in 2005 and which substitutes, with another name but the same premise, “the right to intervene” or as it has been euphemistically termed with much less aggressive phrasing “the right to humanitarian intervention”.

Today, “humanitarian” is the word in vogue even to refer to wars of occupation like those in Iraq and Afghanistan and one has to suppose the bullets and bombs are totally humanitarian in that they hasten the process of dying. Rather than people dying of hunger, which is always a very slow death, they die of a gunshot wound or blown up by a bomb - which guarantees instant death so long as one is fortunate enough to get a direct hit.

D’Escoto, who was rash enough to raise his voice in criticism of UN inaction against the massacre carried out by Israel in the Gaza Strip almost at the start of his period in office in the UN, wanted to go out with a bang, conscious that the incapacity of the UN to resolve fundamental problems of the economic system - the extreme poverty and inequality on which the actual capitalist system is based - has led the multinational organization to go for “palliative measures” (D’Escoto’s own term) like the Millenium Development Goals or, as some Western countries are arguing now, “the application of the concept of the responsibility to protect”.

That means, absent the political will – despite all the verbiage of the G-8, the G-20, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO – to take on the serious injustices and inequalities that exist in the world, it is much more convenient for the capitalist countries (in Orwellian Newspeak, “the international community”) to resort to “the responsibility to protect” than it is to ensure adequately, in the countries of the South, the right to health, education, absence of racial or ethnic discrimination, to mention a few things. “Responsibility to protect” so as to avoid touching on an integral reform of the UN – starting with the Security Council and its longstanding, antidemocratic veto rights – and thus evade the limitations of its restrictive procedures (why an intervention in Kosovo and not one in Israel following the Gaza massacre?) and keep decision taking among a very few.

D’Escoto’s term as President of the 63rd UN General Assembly has been characterized by a coherence uncommon among diplomats. He said practically the same thing and with the same words when he assumed office as President as he did in his parting address : “Only a strong General Assembly which vigorously exercises its deliberative, policy-making and decision-making roles will be capable of enhancing multilateralism as the best option for relationships between States.” (2)

A colonial concept

The “responsibility to protect” is put forward as if it were a new norm in international relations, a new reference point permitting the use of force for humanitarian reasons because the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”, current up until now, is flatly rejected by the coutnries of the South.

The term “right to humanitarian intervention” is a concept developed by the West following the triumph of the movements of Third World liberation and the defeat of the colonial powers, especially in Indo-China and, more specifically, in Vietnam. The new countries, freed from colonial occupation, faced catastrophic situations in many senses – in most cases as a direct consequence of the colonial period – and the West took up the “right to humanitarian intervention” as a good formula to keep control over its former colonial possessions, especially since the West regarded the new UN human rights regime based on collective rights as a direct attack on its interests with the approval of the “Declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples” which states “The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation.”

For this reason, almost all the countries of the South have tended to oppose “humanitarian intervention” in its various forms, over the last three decades. A final effort began to take shape during a summit held in 2000 in Havana in which the principle of national sovereignty was counterposed to that of “humanitarian intervention”. The case of the war on Yugoslavia was very much present in the minds of the participants.

From that Havana event came the decision to formally approve the rejection of the “right to humanitarian intervention” in a meeting of the Movement of Non-aligned Countries. That summit of the non-aligned countries took place in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in February 2003 when another war loomed on the horizon - this time against Iraq - and that summit officially approved the rejection of the “right to humanitarian intervention”. It is well known that the United States, like Great Britain and other countries, like Spain, ignored that resolution and attacked and invaded Iraq in violation of international law, basing their action on the same cynical terms they had used some years earlier in 1999 during their war against Yugoslavia : “it is an illegal attack but a legitimate one.” In the earlier case they used the excuse of ethnic massacres, in Iraq they used the excuse of weapons of mass destruction.

The term, “illegal but legitimate”, used to invade a country or overthrow a government has as its progenitor, the British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, currently responsible for Quartet policy on the Middle East. This individual, who should be charged as a war criminal along with some of his allies, as much for the war against Yugoslavia as for the later ones against Afghanistan and Iraq, went further in justifying NATO’s attacks against Yugoslavian territory when he asserted that the war was not for territory but for “values” (3)

And this is the nub of the matter now too. The West, convinced that its values are the immutable and superior image for the whole world, is trying to make sure that the “responsibility to protect” is covered by the UN Charter with the aim of making it acceptable to public opinion by emphasizing that the military option should be regarded as a last resort and one that ought to be authorized by the UN Security Council. In other words, it should be under the control of those who have always held control. One should remember that in the months after the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), the different UN bodies, beginning with the Security Council and later with the Secretary General, began to legitimize those invasions after the fact. So the United Nations was not acting as an impartial, neutral, independent international organization as the self-same Charter establishes in its principles.

That is what marks the importance of the Presidency of D’Escoto in the UN General Assembly and the new tendency that he imprinted on the organization with his initiatives.

National Sovereignty

But the most surprising ting about the “responsibility to protect” is that the supposed “civil society”, the NGOs and other capitalist country supernumeraries are enthusiastically supporting this supposed new doctrine in international relations. They justify it saying that the massacres in Rwanda in the ’90s were only possible thanks to respect for national sovereignty – the battle of the non-aligned countries - and thus that was what impeded stopping the genocide.

However, somehow they are not able to use the same argument when it comes to dealing with the situation in Occupied Palestine. Since they criticize the defenders of the primacy of “national sovereignty” on the basis of the “responsibility to protect”, they ought to be the first to defend that doctrine in the case of Palestine, which is not a country and has no “national sovereignty” to defend since it is denied its right to State-hood. Or in arguing that if the US and its NATO allies attacked Yugoslavia and invaded Iraq without being impeded by international law, they could have done the same in Rwanda or in Israel faced with the massacre carried out in Gaza since, in the end, the Palestinians are protected by the Geneva Conventions and these form as much part of the scaffolding of international human rights law as they do the law on international relations.

So, the reason for intervention, whether under the old umbrella of “humanitarian intervention” or the new one of “responsibility to protect” depends on what judgment the capitalist countries (“the international community” of Orwellian Newspeak) make of a given tragedy and whether the events occur in a friendly country or in an enemy country, depending on how its government is regarded. Another look at what happened in Kosovo and the way that case was treated – backed up to the hilt by all the West – and what happened in Ossetia following the Russian intervention - unanimously criticized by the West - despite the same justification to “intervene”, used in both cases, being the same. The difference was that the Yugoslav government was not a friend of the West and the Georgian government was.

As it has to be, the UN Secretary General has figured in the debate. Fearing that Miguel D’Escoto’s initiative may bear fruit in the future, an effort was made by the UN Secretary General to head off and minimize the conference by relaunching a document containing the three pillars underpinning the “responsibility to protect” (R2P in the jargon) and which set apart this doctrine form that of “humanitarian intervention” : the responsibility of States to prevent crimes against their peoples; the responsibility of the international community to detect and avoid situations of that sort, and the responsibility to apply various levels of coercion against those responsible, up to and including, where necessary, military intervention. (4) And to mollify critics, especially the non-aligned countries, Ban Ki-Moon adds in his proposal that the General Assembly as well as the Security Council would have to play a part in the case of the ultimate, drastic decision, although he failed to specify what the role of the General Assembly might be.

That detail is not trivial since the United States has dismissed the role of the General Assembly ever since the Palestinians used that forum in the 1980s to bypass the systematic veto the US placed on any condemnation of Israel. This creates an important conflict of responsibilities that can only be resolved with the reform of the Security Council and the granting of greater power to the General Assembly, something contemplated neither by Ban Ki-Moon nor, obviously, by the permanent members of the Security Council.

But despite the document in question, Ban Ki-Moon is clear which side he is on, suggesting that, while the principle of “national sovereignty” is acceptable, it has to be “responsible”. One has to suppose that he is referring to all the UN member countries, in which case the first thing Ban Ki-Moon would have to do is guarantee that the West complies with international law, beginning with the UN itself. This is clear in the case of the electoral fraud in Afghanistan – described as “massive” or “widespread” and reckoned, even most conservatively, at 30% - since that fraud has been covered up by UN representatives until it became impossible to do so any longer.

And it ought to be followed by forcing upon Israel the “responsibility to protect” the Palestinian people and to comply with UN resolutions it has flouted for more than 40 years. And the United States should have to observe its “responsibility to protect” the Cuban people by lifting the blockade to which the US has subjected that island for almost 50 years now. And in the case of NATO, with which the UN reached a collaboration agreement in September 2008 without consulting the UN membership, as senior UN officials as well as Russia denounced at the time. The agreement states “cooperation (between NATO and the UN) will continue to contribute significantly in dealing with the threats and challenges facing the international community to which it is called on to respond.” (5)

It is time to intervene in the debate opened up so bravely by Miguel D’Escoto and to begin to form opinion. No system of international relations or international justice can operate without trust and equal treatment. For example, the 14 arrest warrants issued this year by the International Criminal Court are all for Africans of the Congo Democratic Republic, the Central African Republic, Uganda and Sudan with not one Western ally responsible for massacres included, like Paul Kagame or Yoweri Museveni, the current Presidents of Rwanda and Uganda, respectively.

If one wants a new era in international relations one has to advocate a genuinely democratic world and that is not won through Nobel peace prizes being awarded to the US President. One needs only to apply the principles of Chapter One of the UN Charter :

The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.

All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

That is something D’Escoto said in his farewell address, “I am one of those who believe that the United Nations has the potential as an organization to be indispensable to humanity’s efforts to survive the crises converging to threaten its extinction. The main problem, without a doubt, is that not all its founders really believed, or believe even today, in the vision or principles explicit and implicit in its underlying Charter. I believe that it is not far-fetched to note that the whole world knows that, among many other truths, some of our most powerful and influential Member States definitely do not believe in the rule of law in international relations and are of the view, moreover, that complying with the legal norms to which we formally commit, when signing the Charter, is something that applies only to weak countries. With such a low level of commitment, it should not be surprising that the United Nations has been unable to achieve the main objectives for which it was created. Certain Member States think that they can act according to the law of the jungle, and defend the right of the strongest to do whatever they feel like with total and absolute impunity, and remain accountable to no one. They think nothing of railing against multilateralism, proclaiming the virtues of unilateralism while simultaneously pontificating unashamedly from their privileged seats on the Security Council about the need for all Member States conscientiously to fulfill their obligations under the Charter, or be sanctioned (selectively of course) for failing to do so. The sovereign equality of all Member States and the obligation to prevent wars are, for them, minor details that need not be taken very seriously.”(6)

The battle against the “responsibility to protect” is not trivial. It holds the future of whole peoples. There is no point promoting reform of the UN when what we need to do is to re-invent it. D’Escoto quoted the Latin “tempus fugit”. Time flies and with it also “the opportunities for us to do what we must to ensure a fitting future for the coming generations” (7). Amen to that.

Notes:

(1) Granma, May 22nd 2009.

(2) Miguel D’Escoto, farewell address as President of the 63rd UN General Assembly, September 14th 2009- http://www.un.org/ga/president/63/statements/finalsession140909.shtml

(3) Newsweek: “Sea línea de una nueva generación”, 19 de abril de 1999.

(4) Ban Ki-moon: “Implementing the responsibility to protect”, A/63/677

(5) http://wikileaks.org/wiki/UN-NATO_Cooperation_Declaration,_23_Sep_2008

(6) Miguel D’Escoto, farewell address.

(7) Ibid.

Alberto Cruz is a journalist and political analyst - albercruz@eresmas.com


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