International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), 'The Responsibility to Protect'

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Review by Trevor Curnow

The ICISS was set up by the Canadian government in 2000 to investigate and report on the “right of humanitarian intervention”, with its members being selected from a variety of backgrounds and nations.

Before preparing their report they organised a series of international discussions and commissioned a set of briefing papers from recognised experts in the field. The CD-ROM contains the papers and summaries of the discussions along with an extensive bibliography. (This supplementary volume is also available in paperback, ISBN 0 8893 6963 1.) The Commission is to be congratulated in putting together such an impressive piece of work, in terms of both quality and quantity, over such a relatively short period of time.

The aim of the supplementary volume is to set out the background to the report, and this it does in a thorough and systematic way. Its authors (Thomas Weiss and Don Hubert) set out the main themes of the debate, provide an overview of relevant twentieth century interventions, and bring together the fruits of scholarly opinion relating to the topic. As such, it is an important and informative document in its own right.

However, the primary interest must be in the report itself. Reading the two volumes together it is evident that the ICISS was prepared to be both conservative when appropriate and innovative when necessary. A central element of the report is the rejection of the term “humanitarian intervention” itself. It is regarded as both too discredited by abuse, and too much focused on the agents of intervention as opposed to its actual or supposed beneficiaries. Instead of a right to intervene, the ICISS prefers to talk of a responsibility to protect, as reflected in the title of the report.

The Commission argues that sovereignty implies responsibility, and that where a state fails to carry out its fundamental responsibilities to its citizens, then a residual responsibility falls on the international community. Military intervention is not ruled out, but it is only countenanced as a last resort in times of crisis when a substantial loss of life or widespread ethnic cleansing has to be averted or ended. Even then it should only be considered if it has a reasonable chance of success.

The Commission is at pains to point out that the responsibility to protect is best exercised through prevention rather than reaction, and that prevention has a variety of dimensions, including the economic one. Furthermore, military intervention, when practised, brings with it a responsibility to rebuild. Prevention, reaction and rebuilding together constitute the practical implications of the responsibility to protect.

The report is densely argued, and only the barest of its bones have been set out here. It has been sent to the United Nations and deserves to be taken very seriously by the international community. Whether it will be or not remains to be seen.

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