Responsibility to protect – carrying the burden?

22 March, 2011

 

Richard Burge, Chief Executive, writes:

The overarching role of any government is to protect its citizens.  But when they fail to do that, what rights or more importantly, what responsibilities and duties do other nations have to step in?  Responsibility has powerful consequences.  If responsibility is not exercised, if its burden is not taken up, then pleas for human rights, in the words of T S Elliot are quiet and meaningless, as wind in dry grass.

But once the responsibility is accepted, and the legal basis for taking action to fulfil that responsibility is determined, what on earth do you do on the ground?  It is incredibly complicated, uncertain and, indeed, perilous.  At two Wilton Park conferences in the past 18 months, we have addressed two key dimensions of responsibility to protect; one is the role that the Lisbon Treaty now gives the European Union for linking development, human rights, security and defence policies, and the other is the very practical issue of the means which can or should not be used to protect civilians on the ground.  The reports from each are worth close reading.  They make it clear that when a state fails to protect its citizens or when it starts to treat them as a military enemy, intervention is fraught with danger, with risk, and the fear of making a bad situation even worse.

Sometimes it seems all too difficult we would like to help but there are too many risks.  This argument is called necessity; it claims that while the principle may be right, its implementation is impossible for all sorts of sound reasons.  William Pitt the Younger, in the long debates on the abolition of slavery, gave this excuse short shrift ; Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

In short, this responsibility to protect the innocent is not a burden that a free nation can choose to carry it is an inalienable consequence of being free.

 

Richard Burge

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