The Responsibility to Protect: Assessing the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty

Article excerpt

Jennifer Welsh is University Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College. Carolin Thielking is a doctoral student in International Relations at Oxford. S. Neil MacFarlane is the Lester B. Pearson Professor of International Relations at Oxford and the Director of the Centre for International Studies. The authors would like to thank Henry Shue and the two anonymous reviewers who provided comments on an earlier version of this text.

...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?

Kofi Annan(1)

THE CONTROVERSIAL PRINCIPLE OF NON-INTERVENTION is much older than the United Nations system that enshrines it. Indeed, debates about the extent and limits of state sovereignty have been an integral part of the evolution of modern international society since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.(2) Since 1945, the debate has focused on the alleged incompatibility of two principles of the United Nations system: sovereign equality and human rights. The former, enshrined in articles 2(1), 2(4) and 2(7), suggests that states should enjoy sovereign equality - defined internally as exclusive jurisdiction within a territory and externally as freedom from outside interference. The latter, identified in the preamble and article 1(3) and elaborated in subsequent declarations and conventions, suggests that individual rights are inalienable and transcend sovereign frontiers.

Several features of contemporary international relations have sharpened this conflict and provided added impetus to those calling for more interventionism: the weakness (or complete failure) of state structures in many conflict-ridden societies, which provides opportunity for criminal activity, arms proliferation, and terrorism; the increased vulnerability of civilians in the context of civil conflict; the 'CNN effect,' in which global and instantaneous access to information heightens popular awareness of human suffering; the strengthening of human rights norms and proliferation of human rights organizations; the fear of refugee flows; and the search by Western governments for new forms of political legitimacy and 'moral authority' to replace the ideologically driven agenda of the cold war. In short, today's debate about the legitimacy of intervention is conducted in a climate of heightened expectations for action.

This permissive context for intervention provided the backdrop for Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, to issue a challenge to the international community to prevent 'another Rwanda.' At the General Assembly in 1999, Annan called for a new consensus on the age-old problem of intervention and a plan of action for responding to humanitarian tragedies.(3) Canada's response to this call, led by the former foreign affairs minister, Lloyd Axworthy, was the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS).

The ICISS was announced at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000 by Canada's prime minister, Jean Chretien, and received funding, thought leadership, and organizational support from the Canadian government.(4) It was modelled on the 1987 Brundtland World Commission on Environment and Development and had three goals: 1) to promote a comprehensive debate about humanitarian intervention; 2) to foster a new political consensus on how to reconcile the principles of intervention and state sovereignty; and 3) to translate that consensus into action. The Commission was co-chaired by Gareth Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia, and Mohamed Sahnoun, a senior Algerian diplomat and former special adviser to the United Nations secretary general.(5) An advisory board of serving and former foreign ministers provided a political reference point and follow-up mechanism for the ICISS recommendations. …