UN Address: Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect

Published on ZNet, by Noam Chomsky, August 6, 2009.

(Address to the United Nations General Assembly Thematic Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect, the United Nations, New York,  23 July 2009) – (Download Chomsky’s speech in PDF).

The discussions about Responsibility to Protect (R2P), or its cousin “humanitarian intervention,” are regularly disturbed by the rattling of a skeleton in the closet: history, to the present moment …

… NATO has also determined that its “area of jurisdiction” extends to Afghanistan, and beyond.  Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer informed a NATO meeting in June 2007 that “NATO troops have to guard pipelines that transport oil and gas that is directed for the West,” and more generally have to protect sea routes used by tankers and other “crucial infrastructure” of the energy system. 

The expansive rights accorded by the International Commission are in practice restricted to NATO alone, radically violating the principles of Corfu Channel and its descendants, and opening the door for resort to R2P as a weapon of imperial intervention at will.

The Corfu Channel principle provides considerable insight into both the timing of the rhetorical invocation of R2P and its cousin, and the selectivity of their application in this new incarnation.  The “normative revolution” declared by Western commentators took place in the 1990s, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had, in earlier years, provided an automatic pretext for intervention.

The Bush senior administration reacted to the fall of the Berlin Wall with an official exposition of Washington’s new course: in brief, everything will stay much the same, but with new pretexts.  We still need a huge military system, but for a new reason: the “technological sophistication” of third world powers.  We have to maintain the “defense industrial base” – a euphemism for state-supported high-tech industry.  We must maintain intervention forces directed at the Middle East energy-rich regions – where the threats to our interests that required military intervention “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door,” contrary to decades of pretense.  New pretexts for intervention were needed, and the “normative revolution” entered the stage – once again …

… I mentioned that the consensus of the World Summit adheres to the Corfu principle and its descendants only if we assume that the Security Council is a neutral arbiter.  It plainly is not.  The Council is controlled by its five permanent members, and they are not equal in operative authority.  One indication is the record of vetoes — the most extreme form of violation of a Security Council Resolution.  The relevant period is from the mid-1960s, when decolonization and recovery from wartime destruction gave the UN at least some standing as representative of world opinion.  Since then, the US is far in the lead in vetoes, Britain second, no one else even close.  In the past quarter-century, China and France vetoed 3 resolutions, Russia four, the UK ten, and the US 43, including even resolutions calling on states to observe international law.  The skeleton in the closet nods in recognition as the maxim of Thucydides strikes again.

One way to mitigate this defect in the World Summit consensus would be to eliminate the veto — incidentally, in accord with the will of most Americans, who believe that the US should follow the will of the majority and that the UN, not the US, should take the lead in international crises.  But here we run up against Adam Smith’s maxim, which ensures that such heresies are unthinkable, as much so as applying R2P right now to those who desperately need protection but are not on the favored list of the powerful. American public opinion brings up a further consideration.  The maxims that largely guide international affairs are not graven in stone, and, in fact, have become considerably less harsh over the years as a result of the civilizing effect of popular movements.  For that continuing and essential project, R2P can be a valuable tool, much as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been.

Even though states do not adhere to the UDHR, and some formally reject much of it (crucially including the world’s most powerful state), nonetheless it serves as an ideal that activists can appeal to in educational and organizing efforts, often effectively.  My suspicion is that a major contribution of the discussion of R2P may turn out to be rather similar, and with sufficient commitment, unfortunately not yet detectable among the powerful, it could be significant indeed. (full long text).

(Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Among his recent books is Inside Lebanon: Journey to a Shattered Land with Noam and Carol Chomsky (Monthly Review Press, 2007).

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