French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner yesterday said the United Nations should invoke the “responsibility to protect” in passing a resolution to deliver aid to Burma with or without the government’s consent.
Here’s what the 2005 U.N. resolution concerning the “responsibility to protect” says about the responsibility of the international community:
It’s noteworthy that a failure to properly respond to a natural disaster is not mentioned, but a plausible argument could be made that refusing international aid in the face of tens (or hundreds?) of thousands of deaths, as Burma’s generals are doing, is tantamount to a crime against humanity.
Anyway, the “responsibility to protect” makes perfect moral sense, but the conditions under which it can and should be applied have yet to be clearly defined.
The Burma situation, and Darfur before it, demonstrate that the doctrine is not yet ready for prime time. The best international law recognizes the unpredictable ways in which moral truths run up against the realities of international politics. The Catholic just war tradition, for example, considers such practical criteria as whether a given war has a good chance of succeeding in determining whether it is justified.
But compared to the syllogistic logic of just war doctrine, which clearly defines a number of such criteria, the U.N. resolution above, with its vague language about “as appropriate” and “collective action” and “a case-by-case basis” is less a fully formed doctrine than a prayer.
Desmond Tutu, the Pope and other moral eminences have endorsed the idea of a “responsibility to protect,” but they should recognize that a good idea is not the same as a useful doctrine. Would a responsibility to protect that required an international intervention against the most paranoid military regime in the world, threatening a war on top of a natural disaster, make any sense at all?
Clearly not, so a useful doctrine would take account of such cases. Principles of international law will always depend for their application and enforcement on the realities of global politics, but the political hurdle is lower when the principal is well-conceived in the first place.