A responsibility to protect

Mike Moore

Few things irritate me more than reading headlines criticising the UN, saying that it should act to stop violence, prevent civil war and solve some humanitarian crisis. The world recoiled at the horror in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Iraq a few years ago, Now it is Sudan.

The United Nations gets the blame when nothing happens. Yet it can only do what its members allow, fund and mandate. Frequently, leaders call for action and then will not fund or equip the UN, the politics of the security council and the veto stops direct action, or a weak mandate puts peacekeepers in an impossible situation. Massacres have been committed under the noses of lightly armed UN soldiers who are instructed not to use force.

What normally happens is that Nato (in the Balkans), Britain or France (in Africa) moves in to forcibly create a peace or a stand-off, and then the UN is mandated to maintain the peace. Peacekeeping is different from peacemaking. There has to be a peace to keep.

Take Afghanistan. It is heartbreakingly cynical the way that governments call for action, and then deny the UN - and a vulnerable new government - the resources to rebuild and construct.

For centuries, the principle of governments having the right to conduct their own affairs without outside involvement has been at the centre of international relations. However, does this mean that sovereignty allows the dominant political force to maim, torture and commit genocide? Article 51 of the UN Charter only sanctions force in self-defence or when it is approved by the security council to stop an act of aggression. Intervention is illegal in matters which are essentially within the jurisdiction of any state. That is the legal premise that Sudan has used to warn countries not to intervene.

However, there is a 1948 UN convention on genocide which can give nations the legal authority to take measures, or can be used to enlist UN action, where genocide is established. Yet, despite visits by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and worldwide condemnation of the situation in Sudan, the UN resolution calls only for sanctions, not intervention.


One interesting factor for those who believe in international law and order is the Sudan government's fear of prosecution for crimes against humanity in the International Court in The Hague. The knowledge that they could be subject to such justice could change behaviour. A new theory of international engagement is emerging that brings these dilemmas and contradictions into sharp focus. The old theory of sovereignty and the right to self-determination will not do any longer. Instead, there is a new 'right' and 'obligation': the responsibility to protect.

The threshold for direct action must be very high. First, it must be possible. Diplomacy must be given every chance. Action must be followed through with resources and plans for stability. Military planners talk of an exit strategy. Equal weight must be given to the plan for reconstruction. As we have learned from Iraq and elsewhere, winning the war can be the easy part. Winning the peace is a long, expensive and dangerous process.

Mike Moore, a former prime minister of New Zealand, was the first director-general of the World Trade Organisation