A little more than halfway through his In Larger Freedom document, in a section bearing the curious title, “Rule of Law” (pars. 133-139), the Secretary-General writes:
134. Nowhere is the gap between rhetoric and reality — between declarations and deeds — so stark and so deadly as in the field of international humanitarian law. It cannot be right, when the international community is faced with genocide or massive human rights abuses, for the United Nations to stand by and let them unfold to the end, with disastrous consequences for many thousands of innocent people.
135. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and more recently the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, with its 16 members from all around the world, endorsed what they described as an “emerging norm that there is a collective responsibility to protect” (see A/59/565, para. 203). While I am well aware of the sensitivities involved in this issue, I strongly agree with this approach. I believe that we must embrace the responsibility to protect, and, when necessary, we must act on it. This responsibility lies, first and foremost, with each individual State, whose primary raison d’être and duty is to protect its population. But if national authorities are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens, then the responsibility shifts to the international community to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other methods to help protect the human rights and well-being of civilian populations. When such methods appear insufficient, the Security Council may out of necessity decide to take action under the Charter of the United Nations, including enforcement action, if so required.
Sounds good, Mr. Secretary-General. So, then, here is a question for everyone at the United Nations to ponder over the course of the next six months—as well as for the various legions of thinkers and actors and witness-bearers who affirm what the literature refers to as the “emerging norm of a collective international responsibility to protect,” and are not overly shy about the grotesque selectivity with which they observe it: Given the fact that as the American and British governments were preparing to launch their March, 2003 war over Iraq, the Government of Iraq clearly was unable to protect its citizens against these foreign aggressors (a bona fide Chapter VII “threat to international peace and security,” if ever there were one—though Chapter VII’s phrasing differs), did not the responsibility to protect Iraqi nationals therefore shift to the international community, and above all to the Security Council?
Or in the very least shouldn’t it have—remaining faithful not only to this emerging norm of collective international responsibility, but also to clearcut Chapter VII principles of collective self-defense?
The “rule of law” indeed, Mr. Secretary-General. To date, all that this alleged emerging norm has meant is the rule of the ad hoc in international affairs. Ad hoc imilitary interventions when they’ve advanced the perceived self-interests of the Greater Powers. (Don’t overlook the fact that the so-called High-Level Panel’s 2004 Report cited as cases in point “The successive humanitarian disasters in Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovia, Rwanda, Kososo, and now Darfur, Sudan” (par. 201).) And ad hoc tribunals when they’ve done likewise. (Interestingly enough, with respect to the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda especially.)
But no rule of law. Nor even a minor strengthening of it.
Only the demise of the rule of law—and massive intellectual efforts to concoct “emerging norms” out of its carcass.
In the end, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that in real-world affairs, the gap between rhetoric and reality increases in direct proportion to the power of the actors involved.
Now there’s a norm for the ages. Something for the 60th session of the United Nations to take up and consider, when it convenes next September.
Postscript. The word ‘aggression‘ (i.e., the crime that the American and British governments committed over Iraq in March, 2003—and that Iraq committed over Kuwait in August, 1990) appears a grand total of once in the text of the Secretary-General’s In Larger Freedom document. Namely, in Par. 19, which states in full:
The proposals contained in the present report are designed to strengthen States and enable them to serve their peoples better by working together on the basis of shared principles and priorities — which is, after all, the very reason the United Nations exists. Sovereign States are the basic and indispensable building blocks of the international system. It is their job to guarantee the rights of their citizens, to protect them from crime, violence and aggression, and to provide the framework of freedom under law in which individuals can prosper and society develop. If States are fragile, the peoples of the world will not enjoy the security, development and justice that are their right. Therefore, one of the great challenges of the newmillennium is to ensure that all States are strong enough to meet the many challenges they face.
Seems, then, that the moment is propitious to talk about the emerging norms of a collective international responsibility to protect—but to protect against internal threats, civil wars, violations of international humanitarian law, and the like, rather than external ones. As long as the nature of the violations are of a class such that Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo, and “now Darfur, Sudan” can be used to concentrate attention “not on the immunities of sovereign Governments but their responsibilities, both to their own people and to the wider international community,” and of the “responsibility to protect of every State when it comes to people suffering from avoidable catastrophe—mass murder and rape, ethnic cleansing by forcible expulsion and terror, and deliberate starvation and exposure to disease,” as the High-Level Panel put the case last year (Par. 201), in the viciously-circular world of power and ideology. And snakes that swallow their own tails.
An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-Keeping (A/47/277-S/24111), Report of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali et al., June, 1992
An Agenda for Development (A/48/935), Report of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali et al., May, 1994
Supplement to An Agenda for Peace, (A/50/60-S/1995/1), Report of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali et al., January, 1995
(Please note that all three of these documents are electronically archived by the United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.)
The Responsibility To Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun et al., September, 2001 (For the HTML version of the same.)
United Nations Millennium Declaration (A/55/L.2), UN General Assembly, September 8, 2000
“We the Peoples”: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century, Kofi A. Annan et al., United Nation, 2000
UN Millennium Development Goals (Overview with links)
UN Millennium Project (Homepage)
A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, Anand Panyarachun et al., 2004 (For the complete PDF version of the same.)
Investing in Development: A Practical Plan To Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, Jeffrey D. Sachs et al., 2005 (For the complete PDF version of the same.—Also see the accompanying Media Release.)
In Larger Freedom: Towards Security, Development and Human Rights for All, Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for decisions by Heads of State and Government in September 2005 (A/59/2005), Kofi A. Annan et al., United Nations, 2005 (For the PDF version of the report.)