Responsibility to plead

Did anyone see Michael Ignatieff and Paul Heinbecker on the brooooadcast this afternoon? Am I the only one who thinks these two advocates of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P to the cool kids) did a bang-up job of demonstrating the doctrine’s — what’s the word I’m looking for here — sucking vapidity?

I’m a fan of Heinbecker and at least an occasional critic of Ignatieff, but regardless, I’m not sure how you can argue that R2P is a tool for deciding whether or how to intervene in the Burma disaster zone. R2P holds that intervention is permissible, over the objections or despite the resistance of sovereign states, if they are unable or unwilling to protect their populations from natural or human-inflicted disaster. The doctrine was written up, at Lloyd Axworthy’s behest by a UN committee of which Ignatieff was a member, essentially to provide ex post facto justification for the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. Vaclav Havel spoke to Canada’s parliament during that campaign and essentially wrote the script for the R2P, three years ahead of time:

“The idol of state sovereignty must inevitably dissolve in a world that connects people, regardless of borders, through millions of links of integration ranging from trade, finance and property, up to information: links that impart a variety of universal notions and cultural patterns….we all, whether we like it or not, suffer responsibility for everything that occurs.”

So how would Ignatieff and Heinbecker fulfill the Responsibility to Protect in Burma? Ignatieff told Don Newman he wants Canada’s government to go to the Burma thugocracy and say — this is a quote — “Come on, guys!” Heinbecker said the best method would be to put diplomatic pressure on Burma’s Chinese patrons, so China would in turn pressure Burma to let aid workers in.

Um. That’s not the Responsibility to Protect. That’s classic Westphalian diplomacy. The R2P isn’t about asking nicely, it’s about what to do when asking nicely fails. And the problem with R2P is that precisely the same hard choices face governments today as they did in its absence. Do we send in troops? What happens if the regime pushes back? What level of disaster rises to the level of requiring intervention? Did Darfur? Did Iraq?

R2P is a thing that looks like a decision and is, therefore, comforting to people who don’t like decisions. In that sense it’s like buying a gun to protect your home. You still have to decide whether to shoot the guys who break in. And if you ask them to leave — “Come on, guys!” — and they don’t, then the decision still awaits.

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