Lloyd Axworthy on the Responsibility to Protect

You may be interested in viewing the entire lecture by former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy at the Joan B Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego, excerpts of which I showed in class on Wednesday. As I mentioned, Axworthy has been one of the key proponents of R2P as a norm for global governance. The introduction and Axworthy’s opening banter and joke take a little time so you might wish to start viewing around the 15-minute mark.


4 Responses to “Lloyd Axworthy on the Responsibility to Protect”

  1. 1 Hannah, Smith 04/10/2009 at 4:20 pm


    I don’t think anybody could disagree with the moral basis for the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). Ensuring that sovereign nation states take responsibility for the welfare of their people, “turning sovereignty on its head” (as Lloyd Axworthy puts it), overlooking the principle of non-intervention if the state is incapable or unwilling to do so and ultimately saving lives. It’s clear that the premise comes from a secure moral grounding – as humans we should, we must help each other.

    Yet, I can’t say I fully believe in this rhetoric, as much as it pulls my heart strings. Any talk of “universal norms” to me seems naïve. China’s human rights record is the obvious example to throw in here, yet even with the codification of certain norms in international law it still seem that states can take whatever action they like. Although the ICC as various tribunals may have brought a few to trial, surely the US in Guantanemo Bay shows how states can simply overlook the law, and face no or little consequences.

    This to me is the fundamental flaw with R2P. Even the website ( http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/ ) claims that it is a “norm” and that the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect is aiming to “strengthen normative consensus”. Whilst norms are all well and good, nobody HAS to do anything. Yes, arguably in a situation such as Rwanda states who fail to intervene may loose face, but politics is a fast moving world. With some smart diplomacy and a few cover-ups, it will soon be forgotten.

    For states, intervention is simply messy – why go in, risking lives of your own citizens, when you don’t have to. With the norm of Sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention arguable stronger than any norms for R2P, and the lack of an overarching authority to demand that on looking states take action, is it not inevitable that states will put their own interests first and take action at the last possible moment, if at all?

    Whilst I fully believe that the principle of R2P is morally right, a rare movement stressing the importance if human life, I feel that in our current system it will be difficult, if not impossible to implement. Surely we have the responsibility to be sensible, to avoid another Rwanda, by implementing procedures that are likely to work.

    • 2 Genevieve Antono 04/10/2009 at 6:55 pm

      Hannah, you seem rather dissatisfied by how R2P is a mere norm where “nobody HAS to do anything”, and you’ve suggested that its a naïve concept that is impossible to implement.

      Yet, exactly what other “procedures that are likely to work” would you suggest be implemented instead? If we take where you’re going with your argument, it seems that we might have to accept the principle of intervention!

      However, note the differences in terminology between the “right to intervene” and the “responsibility to protect”. As you’ve mentioned, the dominant norms on the international stage today are the principle of state sovereignty and non-intervention. A principle where someone HAS to do something, entails that someone else will have to let them do so. And the likelihood of having such a norm agreed to by sovereignty-crazed countries? Probably about zero.

      Far from being naïve, I think that the people who came up with R2P understood that such a seemingly limited principle, is the one most likely to be accepted by the international community in reality. Instead of bickering over highly controversial language like the “right to intervene”, countries can get down to business and carry out their “responsibilities”.

      And IMHO, the lovely thing about countries actually “getting down to doing something”, whatever we call it, can be summed up in three words- customary international law. ^-^

      • 3 James Philip Jee 06/10/2009 at 1:42 am

        What stands out to me the most in reading about R2P and watching Lloyd Axworthy go about this “responsibility” is the thought that changing the words regarding such acts does nothing but change the words regarding such acts. Codifying rather than broadening the scope of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948, it seems, in my opinion, to serve as a feel-good measure ultimately lacking teeth.

        I would have to agree with Hannah in saying that R2P seems rather difficult to fully implement. Ultimately the differences between a “right to intervene” and a “responsibility to protect” dissipate as leaders contemplate spending resources on something that has little national benefit.

        In the documentary “Ghosts of Rwanda” that we watched in class, change of wording would likely do little to push states into protecting another state’s nationals. The original wording of the term “genocide” was a majorly insignificant issue that turned politicians into lawyers as while people were being murdered, the official line of United States leadership was that what was happening were “acts of genocide” but not genocide itself, hence no right to intervene.

        To say that countries now have the “responsibility to protect” would then have bureaucrats defining “responsibility,” no matter how well or narrowly defined the term is in the appropriate documents.

        Not to sound overly pessimistic, but it appears that in the international community it is easier to do nothing and then apologize afterwards. And it makes sense (devoid of morality). If country A intervenes in country B’s business, it would be difficult to justify, not to mention resources would be diverted to something that may not have any benefit for country A. Alternatively, country A, not having any interests in the affairs of country B would not intervene, choosing instead to abstain from the conflict and apologize for not having done something after the fact. Apologies cost no money.

        And as a last point, to say that there would be some sort of framework so that developed countries intervene when appropriate, such as fines, would be to say that an organization such as the United Nations is entirely effective. Ultimately states are their own sovereigns and do what they please in our accepted international law framework.

        So in my logic, where would the solution be?

        Well, there is no easy solution of course. In order for us as a people and as a world to be entirely effective at preventing such events from occurring, we must see ourselves as a collective whole in the cosmopolitan sense, and by extension, the government.

        And unfortunately, there is no legislation for this. (Though R2P seems to promote cosmopolitanism.) We can try our best, but ultimately only time and our future history will tell.

  2. 4 Hannah, Smith 06/10/2009 at 9:08 pm

    James, I am in complete agreement.
    Despite efforts such as the Geneva conventions, the ICC, and (as you noted Genevieve) customary international law, it seems that in our current anarchical system states will refuse to obey any ‘norms’ of having responsibility to protect.

    As Morgenthau, from the Realist school, wrote, States act in terms of interests defined in terms of power. In the dog eat dog anarchical system, states are concerned firstly with their own survival, adn secondly their power. A spree of ethnic cleansing on another continent is ( sad, and morally unjust as this may be) not high on the priorities list.

    In short, with the lack of a strong global hegemonic power dictating the actions of other states, or a system of global governance, states are free to act as they please – regardless of international law. Until there is a direct authority forcing states to intervene, I find it implausible that a system such as R2P could be implemented.

    To asnwer you question about which procedures would actually work Genevieve, it seems that global governance would be the only, theoretically plausible solution.

    May I pose a slightly different point though, specifically with regards to Rwanda, and the harrowing film we viewed in class.
    It seems that the ‘ethnic cleansing’ which took place was being perpetrated by both sides of the conflict – and what point can we draw the boundary line between a civil war with opposing factions killing, and a genocide, where individuals on both sides of teh ethnic divide and killing, and being killed themselves?

    For me, it seems messy, and ultimately subjective issues such as these, are a further reason why International Law, and any codification of when we have a moral “responsibility” to protect, would be impossible to achieve.

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