When the UN was established, the uniting Nations intended to ensure peace and stability, while also promoting human rights and economic development. The means to this end would be the reunion of all -as many as possible- peace loving nations under the UN. The Security Council was established to govern the whole and to be the respectable head of the organization that would prevent the UN from being as ineffective as the League of Nations had proven to be.
Yet, almost immediately after its establishment, the Security Council hit an impasse due to the impossibility of consent in a Council that was composed of Cold War-enemies. An early example of what is both a necessary condition for and the weak spot of the workings of the UN: the UN is built on nations and these remain the essence of the organisation. Consent is essential, even that of those who could never give it to their advantage.
This exclusive focus on nations is reflected in the Charter of the United Nations, in which the member states vow to prevent and resolve international conflicts only (pointedly excluding any internal conflicts from its scope). This is not surprising; member states have after all joined on the condition that the principle of non-intervention would be maintained: it would be easy for powerful states to intervene if such a wonderful excuse was presented to them.
Yet, in a time where internal conflicts have become more prevalent and visible, the right to self-government needs to be re-examined. What is the consequence of non-intervention if the government is killing its own population? What is its value when the government isn’t protecting its citizens like it should – like it was elected to do? It is easily forgotten that it are the people of nations themselves and not their governments that have the right to self-determination. As Kofi Annan put it: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”
‘Responsibility to Protect’ – R2P in short- was developed to counter this particular problem. It did not counter the principle of non-intervention. Rather, it highlighted each nation’s responsibility to protect its own citizens against the worst of crimes. And it pointed to the responsibility of the international community if any state were to fail to do this, intentionally or not. The Convention that was assigned with the task of developing the principle also foresaw a responsibility for the Security Council: to act against such failures of states or, if incapable of doing so, to cede power to the General Assembly.
It is barely surprising that the Security Council members have not looked upon this with a friendly eye. The principle, as it was finally accepted by the General Assembly and the Security Council, would always be dependent on the latter’s consent. As such, it’s a mean that can never be used against any of the members with veto powers. Indeed, to surpass their will would have been to go against the essence of the UN: the prevalence of powerful states, even despite the lack of reflection of this in the Security Council, and despite the encoded ‘principal equality’ of nations.
International justice, as such, tends to be guided by power. If a state has the power to maintain an unjust situation, unjust it will remain. Even if the international community won’t recognize it, it will not go against it either unless broad consent can be found. This goes for unjustified conquest of territory and for unjustified independence, as much as it is valid for inhumane actions of a government against its own citizens.
The generally decried excess of intervention by NATO in Libya, on the other hand, has not made it easier (or likely) that R2P will be put to better use in the future. Indeed, the institutionalised vagueness that is R2P reflects the states’ unwillingness, even at the very beginning, to make use of it: non-intervention remains prerequisite. In its current form therefore, the R2P is apt either to open the door to humanitarian interventions only where the mighty do not oppose it, or close the door to any intervention at all.
Changing this is therefore not an easy thing to do. Yet it is necessary: the vagueness at present can be at the source of both inaction and abuse. The General Assembly has taken on the task to debate further on the necessary preconditions and responsibilities involved, in the only way possible: the informal -non-binding- way. In the meantime the UN will not find its way into any conflict where the government -unrepresentative of its people as it might be- doesn’t want it. Ironically, R2P has fallen victim to the exact problem that it had wanted to remedy.