Home Home Initiatives Comments Insight Publications Correspondence Search Resources Profiles Upcoming






Economic & Social Policy

Foreign & Military Affairs

Think Tanks

The "Responsibility to Protect"

The U.N. Is Not Responsible and Canada Does Not Protect

Beryl P. Wajsman

19 September 2005

 “It is time that American spokesmen came to be feared in international forums for the truths they might tell. It is time we ceased to apologize for an imperfect democracy. Find its equal. . . . Everyone at the United Nations is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.”

~ Amb. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Much has been made in the Canadian press this week of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of a draft resolution that member states have a “responsibility to protect” their populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. If they fail, UN member-nations have a right to take “collective action” to intervene on a “case-by-case” basis to halt such crimes.

Canada was one of the main sponsors for the inclusion of the “responsibility” phrase. There has been much smug, self-congratulatory editorializing on this Canadian “victory”. In fact, despite Prime Minister Martin’s “empty rhetoric” critique of the world body, this is yet another example of the United Nations watering down a noble principle and of Canada having talked the talk but not walked the walk.



UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his report to the 2000 Millennium Assembly, challenged the international community to forge a consensus around the basic questions of principle and process on the “right of humanitarian intervention”. There had always been controversy both when it had occurred, as in Kosovo, and when it had failed to occur, as in Rwanda.

To Canada’s credit it picked up the challenge and sponsored the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in September 2000. It was co-chaired by Gareth Evans of Australia and Mohamed Sahnoun of Algeria. The report of the Commission, commonly called the ICISS, was delivered in December 2001 just months after 9/11.

The report concluded clearly that “collective action” was not a requirement to protect populations in peril. In one of its most eloquent paragraphs the Commissioners stated that, “The Security Council should take into account that if it fails to discharge its responsibility to protect in conscience-shocking situations crying out for action, concerned states may not rule out other independent means to meet grave and urgent situations.”

What actually happened in New York last week should not give anyone comfort in the United Nations or in the principle of “collective action”. The acceptance of the “responsibility to protect” into an overall resolution actually compromised the thrust of the ICISS report’s recommendations and gave member states another pious excuse for inaction.

The inclusion of these words was, in reality, a typical UN foil after a bold American initiative to bar human rights violators from becoming members of the United Nations failed. The General Assembly decided it would be the final arbiter on whether countries had unacceptable records on human rights and whether they could continue to sit, or join, the world body. Quite a comfort considering almost two-thirds of UN member states are despotic regimes.

The draft declaration got acceptance only when, as usually happens in the UN, concrete plans were turned into vague ideas and pledges were watered down. The issue of external intervention for the protection of populations at risk, the “responsibility to protect”, was only included after it was joined by the words “collective action”. These latter two words were the brake that the pariah states that dominate the world body wanted in order to protect themselves from their collective guilt. Prevention of peril animated the negotiators less than the possibility of prosecution.


But the UN’s betrayal of the ICISS recommendations is only one session old. Canada’s has been going on for almost four years.

The ICISS report set out core principles all states should follow in their ways of response to catastrophic oppression inflicted by tyrannical regimes prior to military intervention. These include “…responding to situations of compelling human need with coercive measures ranging from denunciation to sanctions to international prosecution.”

The report stated clearly that state sovereignty was not based merely on respect for physical borders or bloodlines of familial descent, but must be judged on “…the primary responsibility of a state to protect its people…” and that where a population is suffering serious harm and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert that harm then “…sovereignty yields to the responsibility to protect…”

The report’s conclusions mirrored what every authority on international law from Robert Falk to Julius Stone to Derek Bowett to Robert Tucker have written since the creation of the United Nations. That there is no need for “collective action” when the United Nations has proven itself impotent and that in any case the UN is not a replacement for individual state responsibility to prevent atrocities and to relieve oppression. That obligation in the international legal order was accepted by all civilized states in the Nuremberg Principles following World War Two.

Yet what has Canada’s record been since the release of a report that two Prime Ministers sponsored, endorsed and embraced?

Our government still refuses to call the slaughter of the devastated of Darfur genocide. Our leaders called the butcher of Lockerbie, Libya’s Muammar Khaddafi, a man with “a philosophical bent of mind”. We still put business first and human rights second in our dealings with regimes like China that oppress hundreds of millions. We still practice moral equivalency on terror in our Middle East policies. And until the publication of “Operation Apollo” by Cmdr. (ret.) Richard Gimblett we failed to acknowledge the service and sacrifice of over 4,000 of our military’s finest in the Afghan and Iraq wars in order to maintain our “political correctness”.  

The sad truth is that Canada practices pretence not purpose in foreign policy. This nation flails laughingly, substituting style for substance, because it has been rendered rudderless due to a lack of political will and moral compass. Canada has had ample opportunities since the ICISS report to demonstrate a profile in courage. But it just may be too tough for us. It involves more than just mouthing platitudes, holding multicultural love-ins and writing cheques. It means assuming our own share of a burden we are urging on others. And that, sadly, is no longer the “Canadian Way”.


Email Article Format for Printing
Home Initiatives Comments Insight Publications Profiles Resources Search Correspondence




Write to us