The “responsibility to protect”, Burma and Australia


In February 2008 the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was launched at the University of Queensland. Its stated mission was to ‘advance the Responsibility to Protect principle within the Asia-Pacific Region and worldwide.’

The following year, the Australian Foreign Ministry announced $1.8 million in funding for the centre, to ‘contribute to making [R2P] an international norm’.

In August 2008, the Ministry announced a separate $2 million Responsibility-to-Protect Fund for grants to academic institutions and NGOs, to ‘assist in developing an important body of project and research work that will materially contribute to making R2P a reliable factor in international crisis handling.’ Successful applicants from 2009 are here.

Altogether, Canberra plans to spend $4.5 million from 2008-2012 to ‘advance the R2P concept at the regional and global levels, as well as civil society.’

Responsibility to Protect” is a pseudo-concept developed by figures straddling politics and academia, like Michael Ignatieff and Gareth Evans.

Its purpose is to facilitate armed interventions by advanced capitalist states in less-developed countries.

Its debut before a public audience came in a 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. That committee, chaired by Evans, was established by the Canadian Government at the request of Kofi Annan.

It’s worth examining this background a little more.

In a September 1999 address to the General Assembly, the UN General Secretary admitted that NATO’s recent Kosovo campaign had revealed ‘difficulties in applying’ the principle of humanitarian intervention  by which was meant primarily the opposition of Russia and China inside the Security Council. ‘The inability of the international community in the case of Kosovo to reconcile’ their conflicting strategic interests at the UN’s chief war-legitimation apparatus could ‘only be viewed as a tragedy.’

Descriptive excess, perhaps?

Not if we understand the UN’s chief purpose. It is less a source of policy initiative than of validation. That the US could not use the body to obtain ex ante approval for its military action was indeed a colossal failure of purpose.

And, according to Annan, the ‘conflict in Kosovo has prompted important questions about the consequences of action in the absence of complete unity on the part of the international community.’ Stark differences between major states raised the danger of provoking popular ‘distrust, scepticism, even hostility’ to the very notion of humanitarian intervention.

The idea that the world’s most powerful states acted as custodians of humanity’s universal aspirations had been, from the outset, inherently implausible, especially to residents of lands with prior experience of British, French or US cross-border generosity.

The problem was only compounded by public disagreement between governments. Unless the UN could ‘induce States to find far greater unity’, the project threatened to exceed the limits of popular credulity.

The Kosovo experience thus ‘revealed the core challenge to the Security Council and to the United Nations as a whole in the next century: to forge unity behind the principle’ of human intervention.

‘If the new commitment to intervention in the face of extreme suffering is to retain the support of the world’s peoples’, it was necessary to build a new repertoire of embellishment and euphemism. Humanitarian intervention must find a new rhetorical and conceptual framework ‘if it is to enjoy the sustained support of the world’s peoples.’

The task was entrusted to a panel of legal scholars, diplomats and NGO personnel.

Explaining the concept in a Foreign Affairs article, Evans and his co-author wrote:

The international community in the last decade repeatedly made a mess of handling the many demands that were made for “humanitarian intervention”: coercive action against a state to protect people within its borders from suffering grave harm… Disagreement continues about whether there is a right of intervention, how and when it should be exercised, and under whose authority… The issue must be reframed as an argument not about the “right to intervene” but about the “reponsibility to protect” that all sovereign states owe to their citizens.

Why was it so urgently necessary to legitimize ‘coercive actions’ and secure for the ‘international community’ a ‘right of intervention’?

The Commission’s report did not claim to detect an increased incidence of ‘conscience-shocking situations crying out for action.’ Instead, it suggested that ‘there were heightened expectations for effective collective action following the end of the Cold War.’

Who exactly was so expectant?  Calls for coercive intervention came not from African or Asian victims of repression and starvation, but from North American and European chancelleries, foreign ministries, universities and NGOs.

Thus, contrary to the suggestion that  ‘many demands… were made for “humanitarian intervention”‘, the factors were more supply-push than demand-pull.

And what was the basis for this increased willingness? The Pentagon Defense-Planning Guidance of 1992, setting out US strategic priorities for the coming decade, did not mention genocide, human rights or anything similar.

However, it did state that US ‘strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor’ and ‘preventing the domination of key regions by a hostile power’:

In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil… safeguard our access to international air and seaways… [and] prevent a hegemon or alignment of powers from dominating the region… [It] is of fundamental importance to preserve NATO as the primary instrument of Western defense and security, as well as the channel for U.S. influence and participation in European affairs. While the United States supports the goal of European integration, we must seek to prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements which would undermine NATO, particularly the alliance’s integrated command structure.

But, with US producers accounting for an ever-diminishing share of world economic output, the economic basis for unchallenged primacy did not exist. Strategic might is ultimately founded on industrial infrastructure and an advanced capital-goods sector, and such features were increasingly to be found outside continental North America.

US primacy could only be enforced by military means. Thus from the 1990s successive US Presidents claimed the right to use war as an instrument of state policy, against decades of international law.

But unalloyed truths are not fit for public consumption. So naked imperial aggression was draped in the cloak of benevolence: ‘restoring stability’ to ‘failed states’, ‘regime change’ in ‘outlaw states’, waging ‘war on terrorism’, upholding democracy, providing relief, restoring hope and securing tomorrow, etc.

The historical language of Wilsonian idealism and liberal internationalism was mined for useful material. State Department press releases combined it with neologisms developed by scholars and NGOs. These latter, gratified by the attention, recycled such official pronouncements as accurate descriptions of both the world and the motivations of political leaders. The material then trickled down to lowly activists, via the popular media including TV shows such as The West Wing.

Thus a popular perception was created of the imperial state as moral agent.

‘Humanitarian intervention’ became a watchword of the 1990s, as European and North American state elites sought to expand NATO’s reach eastward, towards the strategic prize of Central Asia.

Similarly, ‘Responsibility to protect’ looks set to become the state-financed mood music of the United States’ drive to ’re-engage in a major way’ in the littoral zone from South Asia to the west Pacific, ‘working in concert’ with Australia and other allies to counter China’s rising economic weight and strategic influence.

With state encouragement  like the funding from Canberra described above  it will enter the language and worldview of NGOs, human-rights activists, and left-liberal politicians.

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York (which also acknowledges ‘generous support for its operations’ from the Australian Government) has published two recent policy briefs that discuss how R2P can be applied to Burma.

This wasn’t the first time the country had been raised as a possible target.

Bernard Kouchner is French Foreign Minister, Annan’s choice as administrative head of a newly-cleansed and NATO-occupied Kosovo from 1999-2001, co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and perhaps the most famous and longstanding advocate of humanitarian interventions.

In 2008, in the wake of the catastrophic Cyclone Nargis, Kouchner suggested invoking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to force open Burma’s borders, allowing access to NGO aid workers and European and North-American military forces.

His proposal met with disquiet and consternation among some (natural disasters didn’t meet agreed-upon criteria). But it was supported by others (the original 2001 report had mentioned ‘natural or environmental catastrophes’ where states are ‘either unwilling or unable to cope’ among the ‘conscience-shocking situations’ that could justify military intervention).

Madeleine Albright wrote in the New York Times that some observers would ‘defend the sanctity of [national] sovereignty unless and until they again have confidence in the judgment of those proposing exceptions… but what we need to listen to is the voice — and cry  of the Burmese people.’

The Australian director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland later remarked that ‘there wasn’t at that time a prima facie case for labeling this an R2P issue’.

The seed, however, had been planted.

For example, Burma Campaign Australia describes itself as a national network of ‘communities of Burma living in Australia, human rights activists, trade unionists and aid agencies’.

Its mission includes several demands directed to the Australian Federal Government:

Investigate how the international norm of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) applies to Burma and be operationalised. R2P to ensure [sic]  the effective protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Several Greens MPs at state and federal level in Australia are affiliated with the organization. These MPs include Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon and Victorian MLC Sue Pennicuik, who serve the network as Ambassadors for Aung San Suu Kyi; Scott Ludlam, Senator for Western Australia; John Kaye, MLC in New South Wales, President of the Australian Coalition for Democracy in Burma; and Tammy Franks, MLC in South Australia.

The organization is also supported by “socially progressive” figures in the Australian Labor Party, such as Tanya Plibersek (who holds the inner-suburban seat of Sydney), and by Green Left Weekly, the newspaper of the Socialist Alliance.

To the extent that members of Burma Campaign Australia aren’t conscious allies of predatory imperialism, they are its unwitting instruments.


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9 Responses to “The “responsibility to protect”, Burma and Australia”

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