There are discussions emerging in United Nations and academic circles about “responsibility to protect,” variously abbreviated as “RtoP” or “R2P.” As recently as July 15, 2009, United Nations Secretary Ban Ki Moon spoke at length of R2P, citing the United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document and further elaborating that:
“First, Governments unanimously affirmed the primary and continuing legal obligations of States to protect their populations — whether citizens or not — from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and from their incitement. They declared — and this is the bedrock of RtoP — that “we accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it”. . . It would be neither sound morality, nor wise policy, to limit the world’s options to watching the slaughter of innocents or to send in the marines. The magnitude of these four crimes and violations demands early, preventive steps — and these steps should require neither unanimity in the Security Council nor pictures of unfolding atrocities that shock the conscience of the world. . . It is Member States’ acceptance of their responsibility to respond in a timely and decisive manner, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, to help protect populations from the four listed crimes and violations. The response could involve any of the whole range of UN tools, whether pacific measures under Chapter VI of the Charter, coercive ones under Chapter VII, and/or collaboration with regional and sub regional arrangements under Chapter VIII. The key lies in an early and flexible response, tailored to the specific needs of each situation.”
The discussions are not uncontroversial. The literature recommends foreign military intervention in the internal affairs of another state only as a last resort, and after gaining Security Council or General Assembly approval, but it recommends it nonetheless. The 2005 World Summit Outcome Document speaks about an individual state’s responsibility to protect its population from these crimes, and to include preventing incitement of these crimes, so President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is forbidden from inciting Iranians to commit genocide against each other, but as written, he is free to incite Iranians to commit genocide against the Jewish population of Israel. Likewise, Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator, is abjured from committing and inciting genocide against his fellow citizens of North Korea, but can freely speak of turning Seoul into a lake of fire. More insidiously, “protection from incitement” can rapidly devolve into limiting freedom of the press and freedom of individual expression.
What is the U.S. military’s history in R2P scenarios? Non-combatant evacuation operations (NEOs) come to mind. During the Korean conflict, U.S. forces, did, on occasion, intervene to protect civilians from what they believed would be certain death at the hands of communist forces. The single largest incident that I can find details of is the evacuation of approximately 100,000 Korean refugees from Hungnam Province in North Korea. In the aftermath of the war in Vietnam the United States gave refuge to thousands of our Vietnamese civilian government and military partners and their family members. Likewise, today we offer refuge to Iraqi citizens whose service as interpreters for our armed forces made them and their families unsafe in their own homeland. But the United States, except for Yugoslavia in 1999, has never invaded another nation for the stated purpose of preventing or stopping genocide or ethnic cleansing, though Senator George McGovern suggested we do just that during the killing spree in Cambodia, and Senator Robert Dole argued for intervention in Bosnia for the same reason. Some in Congress argued that the UN should have lifted its arms embargo of Yugoslavia so weapons could be delivered to Bosnians so they could defend themselves against Serb paramilitaries. (The Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the massacre at Srebrenica and the crisis in Darfur were all preceded by disarmament of civilian populations, limiting their ability to defend themselves against government or government-sponsored forces. See links titled “The Fall of Srebrenica” and “Gun Ban and Genocide, The Disarming Facts”.)
The US-led NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia and the eventual occupation of Kosovo after the withdrawal of Serbian military and police has been judged by some to be an effective humanitarian intervention. But some critics claim that we were slow to fill the vacuum left by the Serb authorities and allowed the Albanian majority to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its Serb minority under the noses of over 30,000 NATO soldiers.
The United States Senate did ratify the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and in doing so agreed “that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” The question remains, do we possess the political will and other national resources to fulfill this very ambition treaty commitment, and is it a vital national interest to do so? Comments are welcome.