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Clarifying the Sphere of State Responsibility

Spring / Summer 2012 Tête À Tête

Clarifying the Sphere of State Responsibility

Clarifying the Sphere of State and International ResponsibilityGB discusses the many-sided condition of the conditional state with former Canadian foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy

GB: What is the state of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine today?

LA: R2P is in flux, in transition. It is substantially expanding its footprint in global discourses and – as I understand the doctrine – is actually being applied in many more ways and places than I could have possibly imagined. People need to understand that R2P includes preventative measures that are intended to forestall both violations against people and outright conflict or civil war. And yet too many commentators immediately and wrongly assume that R2P means military intervention. Military intervention has always been the last recourse – evidently the most serious one – and is subject to strict conditions. But what must be understood is that there are many other tricks of the trade availed to the international community in order to forestall conflict and to provide protection for people well before there are any boots on the ground.

GB: Would Kofi Annan’s recent mission in Syria be consistent with R2P?

LA: In many ways, it was a very clear expression of R2P – just as was his mediation mission in Kenya in 2008, when it looked as if the fallout from the election there was going to lead to a form of tribal, regional violence. In Kenya, Annan was able to get some negotiations going, and eventually to come up with a resolution that probably saved lives and arguably helped to keep the country together. His more recent mission in Syria had the backing of the UN – including the Russians and the Chinese – as well as the Arab League. So the criteria for making it a multilateral, internationally-based engagement were clearly met. The mission was clearly an intervention – in the sense that the international community was making every effort to forestall the continued violence. The mission was also accompanied by very tough sanctions – such that, as if one were playing the keyboard, one is touching the various keys in order to ensure that the pressure applied is constant.

GB: Are there other theatres, as you navigate the globe, in which you think that R2P principles would readily apply?

LA: The issues related to the increasing human risk being created in the Saharan area of Africa and in the Horn of Africa – to wit, drought and starvation – are, in my view, very clearly R2P-type situations in which there has got to be much stronger international involvement that is not simply a traditional humanitarian food-aid programme. Rather, the international involvement must seriously aim to come to grips with the real issues: the breakdown of governance in the Horn; the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea, which has totally paralyzed any form of economic trade or development; the importation of arms and the build-up of arsenals in that theatre; and the flight of what are effectively climate change refugees, which is destabilizing countries like Kenya.

R2P requires that one take a look at the magnitude of the issue. The magnitude for the stated case is certainly there. The risk is also certainly there. The inability of the governments of that theatre to protect their own people is certainly there. This is arguably a very good test-case for R2P. I insist, and have always said, that R2P should not be purely restricted to high-level risk to civilians by force or violence alone. In the end, it does not make much difference whether one is dying at the end of an AK-47 or starving to death.

GB: Would you consider the Libyan experience – to the extent that it may have followed certain R2P principles – to have been, on balance, a success or failure?

LA: The Libyan case met the criteria of the first and second pillars of R2P – respectively, placing primary importance on the responsibility of Libya to protect its own population from grave violations of human rights, and then engaging the collective responsibility of the international community to provide assistance to Libya. What still remains to be seen is whether the third pillar, which requires heavy commitment to the rebuilding of the theatre – and this does not simply mean rebuilding the oil pipelines, but rather helping to resuscitate governance and democratic institutions, including in the area of education – is engaged. The jury is still out in this regard – and indeed it may have to be for some time. The Balkans theatre suggested that it sometimes takes as long as 20 years to make a determination in respect of this third pillar. In the meantime, there has been a very significant drop in interest in the Libyan theatre; that is, the CNN effect is at play. However, I do think that, on balance, the military side of the mission in Libya was successful.

GB: If intervening countries or parties are unwilling, unable or incompetent in respect of the third pillar – including rebuilding – are there not situations in which you might say that, whatever the troubles on the ground, you ought not to intervene because you are not prepared to go all of the way?

LA: That should be part of the calculus. Each situation has to be judged on its own merits. If you are making a commitment to intervention, then you cannot simply walk away or, as it were, put the plane back in the hangar. The intervention commitment really does involve an ongoing set of responsibilities within the theatre in question. And yet, of course, we spend very little time thinking about how to dispatch these responsibilities – how to do peace-building. This involves getting the lions and the tigers and the camels – the different instruments of state power, from the military to the diplomats and the development people – to lie down together. For now, each party, in most states, still likes to do its own thing.

GB: In retrospect, how could R2P calculus have been used to prevent, anticipate or stanch the Holocaust of WW2 – particularly given that Germany was then a great power?

LA: This is a good question. My answer is influenced quite a bit by the Daniel Jonah Goldhagen book on genocide – Worse Than War – which says that, after all other variables are put into the mix, and while one can ultimately have all kinds of countries or places that are susceptible to genocidal action, political leadership is still decisive. In other words, there has to be someone who calculates that there is something to be gained by getting the population riled up, creating scapegoats, and putting on the yellow armbands.

With hindsight, one might say that there could have been much more done to put the restraints on Hitler and the people around him. Hitler had more or less free rein during the 1930s. In fact, Hitler enjoyed non-negligible levels of support in parts of France and the UK in the lead-up to WW2. He was, on this narrative, a leader who was ‘making the trains run on time.’ This support stood in sharp contrast with an R2P-type logic that would have argued in favour of meaningfully targeting and isolating the Nazi regime, and working very hard to make plain to the world its tendencies and intentions toward Jews and gypsies. Evidently, that was not done.

The reality is – and this applies particularly to this century – that one needs to start to put the handcuffs on political leaders, expose them, name and shame, and call them for what they are – recognizing that their actions are a prelude or a signal toward a major genocide or holocaust. The world was far removed from this kind of understanding in the interwar period leading up to the Holocaust.

GB: If the great powers of this century – say, Russia, China, the US or India – were to commit atrocities against their own people or in theatres outside of their borders, what should the R2P calculus of leaders and countries be in order to prevent or stanch these massacres?

LA: One needs to determine the threshold at which one begins to say that – great power or not – something in a given country or theatre is really becoming a major crime against humanity, or indeed genocidal. That aside, however, there are a lot of techniques short of military intervention that may be increasingly available to us this century – and these techniques are becoming more and more sophisticated with the passage of time. The advent of information technology gives us significantly more scope to apply pressure, to get information out, to reveal, to name and to shame. Countries – including great powers – are themselves a lot more vulnerable to such information-war strategies, because most of them are part of a global economy. In the end, all of this may well come back to Immanuel Kant’s proposition that the chances of war diminish to the extent that there is trade interdependence among states.

Of course, if we incorrectly reduce R2P to military intervention alone, then we lose sight of a number of non-military instruments that may be used by creative players in the 21st century. One of these instruments might be, as my friend Mary Graham of Harvard has written, the use of new-century information sanctions: particularly in the domestic context (but also internationally), rather than issuing big regulations declaring that thou shalt not, we might start saying that thou shalt be exposed. Such sanctions may have a key role to play in influencing political and geopolitical behaviour this century – including, as mentioned, for great powers.

GB: In the Arctic theatre, where is the world headed?

LA: We will likely get a much clearer answer to this question in about a year and a half, when the decision under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) comes down in respect of the extended shelf of the Arctic circumpolar countries. Let us see what will be the decision, and then what will be the reactions from the Norwegians, the Russians, the Canadians and the Americans. The Americans are already very concerned – and much more engaged than they were a few years back – about security-related issues in the Arctic because they have realized that, not having signed on to UNCLOS, they are at a distinct disadvantage in respect of the distribution of claims on the continental shelf. The Russians, for their part, clearly think that the Arctic is their theatre par excellence, and the investment that they have put into the theatre dwarfs those of all of the other parties. The Norwegians are substantially increasing their defence expenditures, as are the Danes – all for purposes of northern security.

There continues to be a crazy tension in Arctic affairs between sovereignty and internationalism. On the one hand, the Arctic Council is slowly emerging and trying to get collaboration going on matters like search and rescue. The Americans have quite an ambitious agenda for the Council, with the aim of increasingly internationalizing it – this in order to get around the weakness of not being a formal player in the UNCLOS regime. So I think that 2013 will be a defining year for the Arctic.

GB: What do you think of Canada’s performance to date in the Arctic?

LA: On the plus side, the fact that the Conservative government has made it a priority is a good thing. Unfortunately, the government’s position overstresses the military aspect of the Arctic game. Both the Russians and the Norwegians are way ahead of Canada in terms of northern infrastructure, including Arctic ports and icebreakers. They are making Canadians look like cheapskates on this key issue.

I am deeply concerned about the apparent bypassing of a lot of the Inuit indigenous communities in the Canadian Arctic as real players. Canada does this at its own risk because, as you know, the UNCLOS decision is going to be based upon the extent to which countries can prove that they have the longest-standing inhabitants of the Arctic region. In fact, I recently read a statement by the head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council to the effect that, if Canada does not pull up its socks, then the Inuit may just say: “Forget about it, we weren’t inhabiting it for Canada.” Right now, in Canada, there is exceedingly limited discussion about how the country manages and operates passage through the Northwest Passage, for example. What do we do about the sharing, with the local inhabitants, of the fruits of the economic development that comes out of it?

I am also concerned about the loosening of environmental impact statements and requirements, including for the Arctic region. In the end, this might well lead to terrible injustices for the people who live up there. Moreover, Canada will be in big trouble if it adopts a ‘gold rush’ mentality vis-à-vis the Arctic – not least because other countries, including the bigger ones, will do the same. No one is saying that Canada ought to push for a moratorium on Arctic development. I think that the cat is well out of the bag. But we have to start putting in some maritime rules about transport, pipelines and exploration. The delicacy of the ocean ecology and the animals and the fish in the Arctic is such that one single spill becomes a disaster not just for the Arctic, but potentially for the global ecology: the currents (the Gulf current on the east side, and the Pacific current on the west side) carry it off throughout the world’s ecosystems.

GB: Canada arguably has very few public tragedies, with the great exception of the Aboriginal condition. What are the major policy volleys that Canada can make over the next 10 to 15 years to begin to reverse this condition?

LA: Let me just say two things, as this could make for a very long discussion indeed. First, Canada has to fundamentally change its top-down, Ottawa-dictated approach to Aboriginal development to a much more self-governance-based paradigm of development that is initiated by the Aboriginal communities themselves. This shift is critical in order to erase the last vestiges of paternalism for the indigenous peoples of Canada. And this is a lesson that is being learned around the world. The Canadian government has to be an enabler. There has to be a lot more transfer of power in the area of natural resources. Second, education and training are primordial. There are far too many Aboriginal kids dropping out in grade nine and, as a result, not having any meaningful options for what they wish to do with themselves. Again, the level of investment in these areas is poor, and successive governments have not been clever about where this investment goes, how it is used, and in trying to understand what works and what does not.


Lloyd Axworthy is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. He was Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1995 to 2000.

(Photograph: Courtesy of Lloyd Axworthy)

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