Stephen Owen – What Am I Skating Towards? Responsibility to Protect

Here is Stephen Owen's response to, What Are you Skating Towards in 2012?

Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, sponsored by Canada, published “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) in 2001, which became part of international law when adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 and the Security Council in 2006. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Darfur all demonstrate the continuing relevance of this doctrine.

In essence, R2P creates not simply a right of the international community to intervene in a sovereign state where mass atrocity is occurring and the state cannot or will not act to stop it, but the responsibility to intervene. The horrors of Cambodia, Rwanda and the Balkans moved the UN to state the principles of humanitarian intervention, but the continuing atrocities in the Eastern Congo, Somalia and Burma demonstrate that the will to intervene often eludes us.

The R2P doctrine recognizes that mobilizing international action must begin with building domestic support within democracies. “Think globally and act locally” is shopworn but remains essential. The obverse is, perhaps, more realistic and therefore more powerful. We and our governments in democratic countries will simply not be able to develop the political imperative to act globally if we do not understand the issues within domestic and personal observation and experience – think local in order to act global.

Consider the state responsibility in Canada to apprehend into public care a child who is being abused or neglected within its own family. The criteria for domestic child apprehension and the obligations that flow from it are strikingly similar to those for international humanitarian intervention into a state where mass atrocities are continuing.

If we as Canadians can understand and make the domestic connection, then we are more likely to demand of our government that it act at the international scale.

A few parallels:

Root Causes. Child abuse is often related to poverty, parents single or otherwise under inordinate stress, and marital conflict. State atrocities can begin with unbearable debt burden, unjust trade laws and sectarian conflict.

Regional Neglect. A family in distress needs alert teachers, health and welfare professionals, neighbours and relatives to provide understanding, respite and support. Intra-state conflict creates internal social distress and cross-border impact, and can require a regional response.

Legitimacy. Domestic governments must act within the framework of child protection, criminal and social service laws to identify and apprehend an abused child. Similarly, humanitarian intervention is limited and directed by international law which is focused on relief for the victims of atrocity and must not have extraneous political or strategic objectives.

Response Intensity. Incrementalism and proportionality are critical to effective state intervention, domestically and internationally. Removal of an abuser rather than the child victim from the home, a peace bond and support for the remaining parent can be effective interim steps. Economic sanctions, no-fly zones and travel restrictions can put pressure on governments. International relief agencies and NGOs can provide interim relief for refugees and populations at risk from atrocity. Indictments by the International Criminal Court can flush out a Serbian Milosevic or West African Taylor.

Cultural Sensitivity. Conflict, from family to community to state, usually has a cultural context. While culture may not be the cause of conflict, cultural understanding is necessary in order to redress the power imbalances fueling the abuse or atrocity. To apprehend or intervene, state actions must be culturally sensitive. Placing an abused aboriginal child in a home outside its culture, or imposing western values on a traditional society in armed conflict, can induce rejection and continuing despair. We must first look to traditional leadership for wisdom and support before we intervene to end atrocity, just as we must first look to extended family to assist an abused child.

Adequate Resources. If a child must be placed in foster care, we must ensure that the surrogates are carefully screened, trained, resourced and monitored. If an atrocious state must be invaded, we must similarly seek to ensure that adequate force – troops on the ground and not indiscriminate bombing – is engaged; that the delicate calculation of proportionality – more good than harm – is completed; and that development assistance and democratic capacity building are woven into the intervention as primary objectives.

Exit Strategy. State action, into a family or across borders, must be deliberative, positive and goal-oriented. Protect the child through eventual return to home, placement with relatives, or healthy adoption; secure the population through economic and democratic development. In child apprehension, it is no solution if court proceedings put a child’s life into limbo through years of delay; and in humanitarian intervention, however initially well motivated, apparently permanent occupation will become oppressive and breed popular opposition at home and abroad. So, in either case, know why you are going in and how you are getting out.

We are dealing with a universal human condition. A clear understanding of the dynamics and complexities of the local and global analogies can help us demand of our governments the appropriate response.

Stephen Owen, QC, PC is the Vice President, External, Legal and Community Relations at the University of British Columbia, who has investigated security force killings in North Ireland/ Gibraltar, Cambodia, Kosovo, Somalia and apartheid South Africa.           

NOTE: I am releasing individual essays from the collection, What are you skating towards?  Upcoming contributions are by Shari Graydon, Donna Thomson, Mark Kingwell, Marcel Lauzière and Peter Block. You can access the accumulated essays here.

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