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When nations kill their own

'Reponsibility to protect' has come a long way, but not far enough.

By Gareth Evans / October 10, 2008


At the height of the bloody suppression by the Burma (Myanmar) regime of protesting monks last year, the heated question was whether the international community should intervene. In response, a well-known Chinese professor told an American newspaper "China has used tanks to kill people on Tiananmen Square. It is Myanmar's sovereign right to kill their own people, too."

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That is about as chilling and abhorrent a statement as it gets for many in developed countries. It's an apparent apologia not only for Tiananmen and the October crackdown, but the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda, the bloody massacre of Srebrenica, and the crimes against humanity continuing in Darfur.

The statement reflects a feeling that seems to ignore the developments in international human rights law since 1945 – from the Universal Declaration and the Covenants, to the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. And it seems to embrace the starkest possible interpretation of Westphalian principles; not only that what happens within state borders is nobody else's business, but that sovereignty is a license to kill.

For many others, however, the Chinese professor's statement, while probably chilling in its directness, and certainly less diplomatically expressed than it could have been, captures a sentiment that has great resonance in the developing world. It's also one that has too often been ignored by enthusiastic human rights campaigners arguing for "the right to intervene," by coercive military force if necessary, in internal situations.

While the right of humanitarian intervention might be seen in most of the developed world as a noble and effective rallying cry, it had the capacity elsewhere to enrage. And it continues to do so, not least among those new states emerging from the post World War II period, proud of their identity, conscious in many cases of their fragility.

To try to resolve this tension between competing worldviews, the concept of "the responsibility to protect," or R2P, was devised as a new rallying cry to replace the call for "the right to intervene."