Press Conference on General Assembly Dialogue on Responsibility to Protect

23 July 2009

Press Conference on General Assembly Dialogue on Responsibility to Protect

23 July 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


With the General Assembly holding its first ever thematic debate on the responsibility to protect populations from genocide or other war crimes, a diverse panel of academics struggled today during a press conference to find common ground on how the concept, seen by some developing nations as a Western ploy to meddle in their domestic affairs, could ever be fairly or effectively applied.  (For a summary of the thematic debate, see Press Release GA/10847.)

Introduced by General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, who called the responsibility to protect “a rather touchy issue”, the panel featured Jean Bricmont ( Belgium), Noam Chomsky ( United States), Gareth Evans ( Australia) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o ( Kenya).  The group presented divergent views about the practicability of the concept –- embraced at the 2005 World Summit -- of holding States responsible for shielding their populations from mass atrocities and requiring the international community to step in when that obligation was not met.

Mr. Ngugi said the overall objective of the responsibility to protect, known as R2P, should be to eliminate the need for intervention.  That meant mobilizing the political will to take early warning signs seriously and to examine the root causes of many of the issues that sparked tension and conflict today.  Calling for long-term solutions to such issues as lopsided development between and even within nations, he said: “If we gloss over this particular aspect, we will be making a serious mistake.”

While Mr. Chomsky backed the call for bolstered early warning mechanisms, he said they were practically useless without a proactive press corps, especially in the West.  For example, no mainstream press seemed to be reporting things such as the World Food Programme (WFP) decision to cut back on its activities, a move that could spark instability in some places.  Further, as far back as 1979, there had been signs that structural adjustment polices implemented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were at the centre of brewing tensions in Burundi and Rwanda.

Mr. Chomsky was concerned that the lack of a serious and dedicated press meant the general public was unaware of the troubling aspects of intervention in the name of the responsibility to protect.  From early American colonialists to Nazi strategy to the “Japanese invasion of Manchuria”, there were cases of provocation or intervention that had all come to the same end: the powerful did what they wanted and the poor suffered as they must.  “I would love to see that change, but unfortunately there isn’t going to be,” he said.

Mr. Bricmont tackled questions on the role played by the United Nations, its Charter and the Security Council.  As they all currently existed, they were not easy to change.  It seemed to him that the Organization had been discredited, not because of its failure to act regarding Rwanda, but for its failure to stop the United States-led war in Iraq.  So, there were “good things and bad things” about the world body, the most important “good” being its Charter, which called for the defence of national sovereignty of small States against the powerful.

On the Security Council and the suggestion by some that the body’s five permanent members –- China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States -- consider setting aside their veto power in cases where R2P might apply, he echoed Mr. Chomsky, saying that anything that could be perceived as undercutting the interests of the powerful States was not going to change.

He went on to say that the entire discourse on responsibility to protect was biased in favour of a “pro-intervention” philosophy.  While everyone from the United Nations Secretary-General to the man on the street cited Rwanda as a disaster because the international community had failed to intervene, no one ever mentioned the disasters that such intervention had set off in places like Somalia or eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Yet, Mr. Evans said, for all their imperfections, “these institutions are all we’ve got”.  While the Security Council was not the general gatekeeper of the responsibility to protect, it must be tasked with coordinating a cohesive international response regarding the use of force or imposition of sanctions.  In any case, Council oversight was much better than “freelance intervention”.  Moreover, the basic idea was not to find alternatives to the Council, but make it work better.

“One of the things that would unquestionably make it work better, aside from finding agreement on things like the use of force, would be for the veto power to be either abolished altogether, or to come to some agreement that it could be set aside in some cases, of which mass atrocity crimes would be a strong candidate,” he continued.  While not very hopeful about that in the near term, he said that if the Member States could agree on expanding the Council’s permanent membership, perhaps the political pressure of a larger group would curb the “cavalier” use of the veto by the existing five permanent members.

Asked about the fear of developing countries that R2P could be used as a tool by Western Powers to intervene in their domestic affairs, Mr. Evans said he believed the emerging feeling in the “real world” was that when atrocities were occurring, States could “no longer pretend that its none of our business”.  At the same time, those advocating R2P must acknowledge that there was a real fear in countries of the South that it would be misused.

That being the case, advocates of the concept must “define, refine and confine it”, to be absolutely clear that it was applicable only in cases of the worst war crimes or atrocities, and that it must be filtered through a United Nations Charter-bound process.  “If we do that, I believe this fear will drop away,” he said.

Mr. Chomsky said he was living in “a very different world”, where that type of change was not going to occur.  The major Powers still did not care about what was going on in places like eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Formal changes in the structure of the United Nations would not affect much.  What was really needed was change within the societies of powerful countries.  Western Governments must democratize and finally follow the will of the people on the streets.  If more people knew about the United States veto power, or the implications of its use, they could force Washington to abolish it, or at least put it on the public agenda.

Further, Western Powers could ignore what was going on in places like Gaza or Sri Lanka largely because their citizens did not know all that much about those situations.  There had been plenty of early warning, especially in the case of Sri Lanka, “it’s just that no one cared”.  Here, he said, the press could play a powerful role in reporting on such incidents and bringing them to the public’s attention.  While the Charter could be help as a guide in matters involving human rights, it was nevertheless being routinely and blatantly violated.

Mr. Evans said his view of the world was not as “dark and jaundiced” as that of Mr. Chomsky’s, and admitted that some might call him “too sunny or naïvely optimistic”.  Nevertheless, the Outcome of the 2005 World Summit had been a consensus document and that was a hugely significant achievement, if only because it had introduced the principle of the responsibility to protect.

He admitted that more work needed to be done to get the concept implemented and to ensure a more formal assessment of the United Nations early warning structures.  Further, he said, the “arcane processes that have to take place for anything to happen around here, with things having to be approved by the Fifth Committee, the General Assembly, etcetera, some of that sunny optimism starts to drain”.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.