England may be a small island, but it is a bit unfair, as one of Putin’s aides allegedly said in St. Petersburg the other day, that nobody listens to it. Here’s what the Prime Minister, David Cameron, said yesterday:
“Our strong legal advice is that the there is a responsibility to protect - a case for humanitarian intervention because you are preventing a humanitarian catastrophe,” Mr. Cameron said.“There was an argument from some that unless it is self-defence or unless there is a Security Council resolution there is no legal basis for taking action. I don’t think that is the case. I think it is a very dangerous doctrine.”
'Strong legal advice'? Really? Maybe Cameron has been reading a Foreign Office legal memorandum from the eighteenth century. I doubt there is a serious international lawyer in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who could keep a straight face making such an outrageous claim.Of course, Cameron is correct to say that there is a ‘responsibility to protect’. But he grossly misrepresents what it means. The ‘responsibility to protect’ was affirmed in a resolution of the General Assembly adopted in September 2005. Here is the relevant part of the text:
139. The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We stress the need for the General Assembly to continue consideration of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law. We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.
Note the insistence that the ‘responsibility to protect’ is to be exercised ‘through the United Nations’, and ‘through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter’. The United Kingdom was part of the consensus at the Summit of Heads of State and Government where this statement was adopted.As for the second part of his statement, the notion that the use of force is only authorized under only two circumstances comes from the Charter of the United Nations. It is not simply a ‘doctrine’. It is international law that binds the United Kingdom. Is Cameron really saying that the Charter of the United Nations is the source of a ‘very dangerous doctrine’?
The British government has a history of thinking it can defy international law. Or rather that it can purport to be the global equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, delivering its own brand of frontier justice. International courts have been telling it to behave since the earliest days of international adjudication nearly 200 years ago.More recently, in the first great ruling of the International Court of Justice, where the United Kingdom was pitted against Albania, the Court said of Britain’s infringement of Albanian sovereignty:
The Court can only regard the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation of a policy of force, such as has, in the past, given rise to most serious abuses and such as cannot, whatever be the present defects in international organization, find a place in international law. Intervention is perhaps still less admissible in the particular form it would take here; for, from the nature of things, it would be reserved for the most powerful States, and might easily lead to perverting the administration of international justice itself.
These words are as accurate a statement of international law today as they were sixty-four years ago, when the United Kingdom was condemned by the International Court of Justice for violating international law.