The UN declaration of a right to protect people from their governments is a millennial change
Ian Williams
Tuesday September 20 2005
The Guardian

By the time John Bolton had hacked large parts out of the UN's 60th anniversary draft declaration, and then had to agree to much of it going back in after Condoleezza Rice told him to be nice to US allies, it was no surprise that some observers saw the result as a smack in the face for Kofi Annan.

In fact, Annan scored a major triumph, a positive answer to the question he posed at the millennium summit five years ago: "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?"

In the final declaration last week 191 countries, including Sudan and North Korea, went along with a restatement of international law: that the world community has the right to take military action in the case of "national authorities manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity". It comes too late to help Darfur, not to mention Rwanda and Cambodia, but it is a millennial change.

Tony Blair, whose speech did not mention the crucial millennium development goals in case it upset his friend President Bush, welcomed the new development: "For the first time at this summit we are agreed that states do not have the right to do what they will within their own borders."

This is quite true, but one suspects he has forgotten the corollary: nor do they have the right to "do what they will" outside their own borders. His retrospective - and spurious - invocation of the principle of humanitarian intervention to justify the invasion of Iraq has done much to inflame the suspicions of other member states about this seductive but dangerous principle.

Humanitarian intervention was invoked to cover allied action to support the Kurds after the Gulf war. At the time UN lawyers admitted privately that the clearest precedent was Adolf Hitler's invocation of it to justify invading Czechoslovakia because of alleged maltreatment of the Sudeten Germans. No wonder some leaders, such as Hugo Chàvez - whose assassination was recently prayed for by Pat Robertson, George Bush's favourite pastor - are worried about this development.

However, the egg of "national sovereignty", beloved of American conservatives and Korean communists alike, is now thoroughly shattered and cannot be put together again. The only question left is what kind of omelette it makes. Instead of trying to confront the change, states such as Cuba and Venezuela should welcome the principle - and push hard for the details.

Because there is a sound recipe. When a Canadian-convened international commission examined the concept in answer to Annan's question, they set out "precautionary principles" to prevent expedient invocation of humanitarianism to justify military aggression. They suggested that it should have the "right intention", so that the primary purpose should be to halt or avert human suffering; that it should only be the "last resort", when every non-military option has been explored; that there should be "proportional means", so that the scale, duration and intensity of the intervention should be the least necessary; that there should be "reasonable prospects" of halting or averting the sufferings and that the action does not make things worse.

The report also invoked "right authority" - authorisation by the UN. It is clear that the Anglo-American attack on Iraq met none of these criteria. And while Cuba's ways with dissidents may leave much to be desired, there is no licence for an intervention there.

So what will this mean in Darfur? Very little immediately, but if Khartoum continues to facilitate mass killing, next time the issue comes before the security council, the Sudanese regime's friends will not be able to invoke legal arguments about sovereignty to cover them, although they will raise others. But in the long run Annan, self-indicted as a UN bureaucrat for inaction over Srebrenica and Rwanda, has paid his dues to humanity with this declaration.

· Ian Williams is the author of UN for Beginners. His latest book is Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 ·

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