Ask a student, any student, what ‘R2P’ means, and you can be forgiven for the blank stare you are likely to receive. Flesh it out into ‘Responsibility to Protect’, and you are still likely to get the same.
And yet, arguably, this is one of the most significant outcomes from years of wrangling and debate within the United Nations, amongst nation states, and of course amongst lawyers.
‘Responsibility to Protect’ is perhaps the most meaningful and hopeful of doctrines to emerge from the United Nations, coming in the wake of international impotence in the former Yugoslavia and the terrible failing of the UN itself to protect the people of Srebrenica in Europe and the people of Rwanda in Africa.
The doctrine emerged uder the leadership of Kofi Annan and his deputy, the former UK foreign office Minister, Mark Malloch Brown. In truth it can trace its roots back to the international tribunal at Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War. There, for the first time, the leaders of the Third Reich were tried for ‘crimes against humanity’.
The most rigorous and commanding example of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is the current UN Security Council ‘no fly zone’ in Libya. Lest it be forgotten in the fog of conflict, that the UN, and the Secretary General, Ban ki moon in particular, moved with commendable speed and precision to forestall a likely onslaught against the civilians of Benghazi by forces loyal to Colonel Gadaffi. Some of those who criticise the use of force, seem to have forgotten that their principle objection to the war in Iraq was based on the fact that it had no grounds in international law. It is quite the reverse in Libya, as it is also in Cote D’Ivoire, where the UN also finds itself supporting the rule of law.
In short the UN and the Secretary General are doing precisely what has been urged on them for over a quarter of a century or more. Of course the UN does not back regime change, and in that respect must be understood when it calls for negotiations in Libya. And of course it would have been preferable for the UN Security Council to vote to have retained overall military command of the operation.
But those who now argue for non intervention need to remember that it is the United Nations, and not an individual government that has sanctioned the no fly zone. They also need to remember that had it not been for the forthright actions of the UN Secretary General and at a number of levels, there could have been far more civilian casualties than there have been. And for that we should be truly thankful.