Importance of 'responsibility to protect' outlined at conference


THE "RESPONSIBILITY to protect" doctrine is one of the most significant conceptual shifts in international affairs since the United Nations charter in 1945, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Peter Power said yesterday.

Mr Power, who has responsibility for overseas aid, told a conference in Dublin that the recently popularised concept could help to prevent - and ensure an effective international response to - crimes such as genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The "responsibility to protect" principles were developed by an international commission under the authority of the Canadian government in 2001.

The commission was charged with finding a new approach to the vexed question of humanitarian intervention after a decade marked by fierce international divisions over how to deal with the crises in Rwanda and Bosnia.

"The doctrine is one of the most significant conceptual developments in international law and practice since the promulgation of the United Nations charter in 1945," Mr Power said.

The failure in recent years to protect vulnerable populations from mass atrocities had provoked horror and shame across the globe, he continued.

"The development of the doctrine of responsibility to protect cannot atone for past failures.

"But it can ensure that every stakeholder . . . is aware of their roles, obligations and responsibilities when faced with the threat of the four specific crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

Yesterday's conference was organised by the Royal Irish Academy.

Those in attendance also heard from one of the Canadian commission's founders - the former Australian foreign minister and current president of the International Crisis Group, Gareth Evans.

He explained that the concept aimed to make it a "reflex response" for the community of states to shed its indifference to atrocity crimes.

It involved a linguistic shift from an emphasis on the right to intervene to the responsibility of the collective.

There was also a stress on prevention rather than simply reaction, and a broadening of the discussion beyond military action. "Responsibility to protect . . . is on a number of different areas," he said.

"It's not just about reacting to situations as they explode.

"It's about preventing them occurring in the first place . . . It's about a whole continuum of responses."

Some states, particularly in the developing world, are concerned that the concept could be abused to serve the interests of powerful countries. Ireland is a strong supporter of the doctrine, however.

Addressing critics who believe it fatally undermines sovereignty, Mr Power said that if humanitarian law was to have any meaning, "its values must be supported and defended where they are most threatened".

But he emphasised the concept was not a "carte blanche" for military action, and warned that some "loose talk" invoking the principle - for example, in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma last spring - had not helped to build wider acceptance of the idea.

"But equally it is worrying that some members of the [ UN] Security Council . . . have continued to address issues such as Burma and Zimbabwe in ways which seem to suggest that sovereignty remains absolute, and to indicate a possible hostility on their part to acting on the basis of 'responsibility to protect' even in the most extreme circumstances."