By Adrian Glamorgan

In 1994, within 100 days about 20 per cent of Rwanda’s population was killed. Facilitated by the Rwanda government, the militia used and handed out guns, grenades and machete: estimates vary between 500,000 to one million Tutsi and pro-peace Hutu died in the surprise planned

Nevertheless, before these events the United Nations Force Commander in Rwanda, Canadian Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire warned the UN of the Rwandan government plan for mass slaughter.

Once the bloodletting started, the UN Security Council refused to give
the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) permission to intervene.

Hoping for protection, thousands of Tutsis huddled close to Belgian troops. They were massacred within reach of UN protection. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said later: ‘The international community is guilty of sins of omission’.

In 2000 the UN Security Council admitted its responsibility for failure to stop the genocide.

Rwanda was one traumatic catalyst, as was Srebrenica, to the simple and bold idea that each country, and the international community as a whole, has a Responsibility to Protect. This is not international law, but a norm.

It came about this way: with Canadian Government authority, Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister, and Mohamed Sahnoun founded the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty with members from the General Assembly to answer Kofi Annan’s key question:

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?

The Commisssion reported in 2001, and discussion began. Despite the UN Charter expressly respecting state sovereignty, by 2005 the UN World Summit unanimously endorsed the principle of the Responsibility to Protect.

In the same year, the founding charter of the African Union (AU) declared the AU had the right to intervene in a member state ‘in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity’.

Back at the UN, attempts were made by some countries to moderate the 2005 World Summit principle. In 2009 the Chinese delegate insisted that the UN must uphold ‘the principles of respecting state sovereignty and non-interference of internal affairs’. In the Chinese case, the word Tibet may have gone unspoken; in Australia, it might be Aboriginal mortality rates.

But we must return to the restricted cases on which it can be invoked: genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

We are witnesses to a doctrine that is being made — but is it for good or ill?

The original Charter1 has been refined to mean that the UN should support a sovereign nation’s responsibility to protect its own population from genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Failure to so protect could justify UN action.

Quakers have generally welcomed international organisations, such as the UN in a general hope ‘to abolish war and promote peaceful resolution of conflicts, human rights, economic justice and good
governance’, and we play a part through the Quaker United Nations Office, with offices in Geneva and New York.

Since 2002, Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), in cooperation with QUNO, has also enjoyed General Status at the UN which allows QUNO staff to attend many UN meetings, receive documents, contribute longer statements of its own, and suggest agenda items to
the UN Economic and Social Council.

Friends are active: and we can, on a good day, and as the spirit moves, catch certain people’s ears. Conceivably, just as we would support the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law which applies to combatants, we would be sympathetic to the right reading of the responsibility to protect. We may not like war, but until it has become outmoded, we will try to limit its bestiality.

So what are we to think of this responsibility to protect?

When the people of Cote d’Ivoire are held hostage by a corrupt president, and freed by French forces? When Gaddafi promises to obliterate a city of civilians who oppose him?

Although a close reading of early Quaker history will show more ease with the concept that the government will keep the peace than contemporary Friends might expect, we have spoken in favour of unarmed solutions to international conflict, if sometimes only faintly comforted to know that we are called to be faithful rather than expect to succeed.

We have joined cause with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr, both of whom have clearly signalled the terrible price nonviolence could cost us or others.

For Quakers, we know that the inward light shines in Tutsi and Hutu, soldier and civilian, Turk and Jew; we are well known for our promotion of peace and refusal to take up arms.

As a new international doctrine, the Responsibility to Protect has the potential, in certain cases, to prevent suffering and rescue the downtrodden; it could also enlist the community into the short-term logic of violence. At best, this right of protection means that genocide or war crimes within sovereign borders cannot hide behind the walls of state sovereignty. But at worst, when selectively applied, it becomes a post-colonial Trojan horse for the West to intervene on its own terms.

In early 2011, advocates of the ‘no-fly zone’ to protect Libyan anti-Gaddafi forces invoked the responsibility to protect. Prolonged diplomatic discussion about the issue (Libya is relatively unimportant to US foreign policy, and so action was not urgent) meant that nothing
was done for weeks while many thousands of Libyan civilians were killed, with worse in prospect.

This delay intensified the pressing need for someone, anyone, to prevent Gaddafi’s ongoing slaughter of his own people; but when decisiveness came, the no-fly resolution had morphed from enforcing a ban on Libyan Air Force jets in the air, into the UN giving permission for all necessary means: before you could say ‘NATO’, the Libyan leaders’ headquarters were being bombed as a ‘command and control’ centre of the Libyan military. Here, the Responsibility to Protect became NATO collateral damage.

On 5 May 2011, despite being overwhelmingly positive about the Responsibility approach, Gareth Evans acknowledged:

there is a real concern that events in Libya, far from setting a new benchmark for future commitment, will prove to be the high water mark from which the tide will now recede.2


The Responsibility to Protect could be the most significant refashioning of global perspectives since the end of the Cold War: and like the International Criminal Court, a restraint on tyrants. But consider: a doctrine which captivates liberals has also been press-ganged into serving Washington political conservatism, as happened when US President George Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard chose to invade Iraq in 2003, partly clutching at the time, on the need to protect ordinary Iraqis.

Perhaps as Friends we can support the idea because Responsibility speaks in a language connecting us to our care for common humanity; and, when read in tandem with UN Chapter on the Pacific Settlement of Disputes, it sits easy with our testimonies. However, when the
Responsibility to Protect is enlisted to justify Use of Armed Force, we are now being asked to ‘protect’ with the hammer of war, a means Quakers have not yet, as a faith, conceded.


1 Article 2(7) “nothing shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the jurisdiction of any State”

2 Speech at Freilich Foundation 2011 Alice Tay Lecture on Law and Human Rights, by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, Canberra, 5 May 2011

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