Another cheap way of saying ‘everything is going to be alright’?

Development Policy11 Jun 2010The Broker

We have heard more than once today that it should be considered as progress that R2P has now been focused to be triggered by genocide, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing, as it should mean that the concept is becoming more operational. While this may be the case, we need to remind ourselves that these are the crimes that not only states, but almost everybody, would only ever see the proverbial ‘other’ commit (examples could be Britain’s or Australia’s reluctance to sign the Genocide Convention, Serbia’s stance toward Srebrenica, or Turkey’s position towards the case of the Armenians).

R2P has achieved phenomenal success in generating debate and conferences such as this one. It seems to me to be an answer to a deep need by all the international actors to reassure themselves of their own morality; to support the concept of R2P certainly is proof that the challenge is understood, that the responsibility to protect local populations is accepted and honoured. Yet, as much as we in our debates here invoke the ‘international community’ – a figure of speech of questionable value if we understand ‘community’ to mean that shared values exist on the most fundamental values – and the support for R2P seems to prove that such a thing exists, then by definition, would the problem of genocide, or the problem of a lack of responsibility to protect, not be overcome already?

This clearly is not how it worked in the past. The concept of the ‘civilized nation’ that is closely connected to the original – at least in its legal form – idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is so seriously discredited that, at least in a legal sense, it cannot be used anymore. Civilized nations have clearly committed very ‘uncivilized’ crimes, yet in the development of a theory of what really was an ‘intervention by humanity’, they were – despite their actions – the ‘humanity’, born out of ‘solidarity’ that took on the responsibility to protect in the face of ‘barbarism’.

Yet, as research into the history of ‘humanitarian intervention’ clearly shows, a theory of ‘intervention by humanity’ was developed using very similar ideas to those that are at the essence of R2P, and was not limited to the use of force. The doctrine was invoked by international lawyers to call for (diplomatic) intervention to stop Nazi persecution of German Jews as early as 1933, and continued to be invoked by international lawyers during WWII – and as we all know, with no effect in stopping the Holocaust. We can say that the concepts of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and ‘civilized nations’ clearly failed in the face of that once-civilized nation committing the unparalleled crime of the Holocaust, yet the prohibition of genocide is, according to the ICJ, recognized by civilized nations as binding on States, even without any conventional obligation.

The question we therefore need to ask ourselves is whether support for R2P is – at least at the current stage – just a cheap way of showing that we have learned the historical lesson. The problem then might be less about R2P rejection, and more about the fact that support so far comes at no cost. Is R2P in that sense just another cheap way of saying ‘everything is going to be alright?’.