With Prime Minister Paul Martin's visit to the United Nations last week, the humanitarian concept of 'the responsibility to protect' is back in the news -- at least in Canada. In New York, the prime minister's speech was delivered to an almost-empty chamber. Most foreign diplomats stayed away, believing -- correctly -- that Martin would have nothing new to say. The 'responsibility to protect' that he chose to articulate was a watered-down, parsimonious version of the original concept, as developed under the auspices of former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy five years ago.
At the UN, Martin focused on the responsibility to protect as obligating countries to develop "the rules and political will that would allow the international community to intervene in countries to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe." Yet, he refrained from suggesting that such interventions could occur without the expressed authorization of the UN Security Council, saying the council "should establish new thresholds for when the international community judges that civilian populations face extreme threats... The responsibility to protect is not a licence for intervention; it is an international guarantor of political accountability."
Martin's reticence on this point is explained by the fact that many governments implacably oppose any new right of humanitarian action. Following the 1999 Kosovo intervention, the 133 members of the G77 group of non-industrialized states twice adopted declarations in which they unequivocally affirmed the illegality of humanitarian interventions not specifically authorized by the Security Council.
That same year, the Independent Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), the body of experts charged by Axworthy with finding some "new common ground," concluded: "As a matter of political reality, it would be impossible to find consensus . . . around any set of proposals for military intervention which acknowledge the validity of any intervention not authorized by the Security Council or General Assembly."
The conundrum faced by those, like Axworthy, who seek a more peaceful world is that the existing constraints on military intervention may themselves be saving many lives, by preventing an unknowable number of potential or incipient armed conflicts. Modifying international law to allow for a right of unauthorized humanitarian action might result in more wars -- more death and destruction -- particularly if the new right were to be abused by powerful states.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has already provided an example of the potential for politically motivated manipulation of the responsibility to protect. In a speech earlier this year, he applied the concept retroactively to Iraq, stating: "...We surely have a responsibility to act when a nation's people are subjected to a regime such as Saddam's." Suddenly, a highly contentious war -- justified at the time on the basis of a series of ambiguous Security Council resolutions -- was being rationalized, one year after the fact, with a concept that had already been rejected by many of the world's governments. All the more reason for Martin, in his speech to the UN, to deliberately fudge the issue.
Nevertheless, the prime minister could have said something more constructive about the responsibility to protect, since the concept, as originally developed, involved much more than military action. In 1999, the ICISS, having concluded that consensus on a new humanitarian right to military intervention was impossible anytime in the foreseeable future, stressed that a main element of the responsibility to protect is a "responsibility to prevent" -- by addressing the root-causes of internal conflicts and other human-generated threats to civilian populations.
As the commission's report explains: "The need to do much better on prevention, and to exhaust prevention options before rushing to embrace intervention, were constantly recurring themes in our worldwide consultations, and ones which we wholeheartedly endorse."
The report identifies numerous dimensions of prevention, including support for democratic institutions, press freedom and the rule of law, provision of development assistance, improved terms of trade, and the promotion of arms control, disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation regimes. The main focus of the responsibility to protect must be on non-military measures that would entail significantly larger transfers of wealth, expertise and opportunity from developed to developing countries. If developed countries were to redirect just a portion of their current colossal military budgets to foreign aid, it is likely that there would be fewer armed conflicts and humanitarian crises.
In 2003, the United States spent $417 billion US on its military, and the 15 highest-spending countries a staggering total of $723 billion US. In comparison, the total amount spent on foreign aid by all of the world's countries during the same period was $60 billion US, with much of that aid being tied to the purchase of goods and services from the donor state, or involving the forgiveness of long-standing foreign loans of only nominal value.
Canada's record is less than admirable. Our rather modest military budget of $13 billion Cdn dwarfs our foreign-aid budget of $2.5 billion. Our spending on development assistance as a proportion of GDP has dropped by half, from 0.45 per cent to 0.22 per cent, since Paul Martin entered the federal cabinet, first as finance minister and now as prime minister. There is good reason to believe that early preventive action will almost always be less expensive than military action taken later. As the ICISS explained with regard to the intervention that promoted its own creation and thus the very concept of a responsibility to protect: "In Kosovo, almost any kind of preventive activity... would have had to be cheaper than the $46 billion (US) the international community is estimated to have committed at the time of writing in fighting the war and following up with peacekeeping and reconstruction."
The commission's report was written during the summer and autumn of 2001. The UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo is still saddled with full authority over the territory, requiring the support of 18,000 NATO-backed peacekeepers at a massive, ongoing cost to the contributing states -- including Canada.
Worse yet are the lost-opportunity costs borne by populations in other needy countries and territories, which, as a result of the redirection of peacekeeping, aid and development budgets to Kosovo, have for five years been deprived of much-needed support. The subsequent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have only exacerbated the problem of a relatively small pool of money being siphoned from one crisis to another in response to the shifting attentions of western governments.
Before Paul Martin talks about the responsibility to protect in terms of military intervention, he should dramatically increase Canada's international development spending. After years of punishing cuts, the eight per cent increase announced this year is patently not enough. Developing countries will not take the prime minister seriously, nor attend his speeches, until he demonstrates a real commitment to conflict prevention -- by helping to provide the assistance they so desperately need.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues.