The Responsibility to Protect and Iran by mattsteinglass
June 21, 2009, 2:04 pm
Filed under: International Treaties and Organizations, Iran

In September 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted the “World Summit Outcome Document” that resulted from the then just-concluded 2005 World Summit. The document included an endorsement of the “responsibility to protect” concept: that governments are responsible for protecting their populations from gross human rights violations, and that where governments are perpetrating such violations or failing to prevent them, the international community must step in. The “responsibility to protect” was subsequently endorsed by the UN Security Council in 2006.

To an American eye, it would seem that when the Iranian government sends out armed thugs to shoot live ammunition at non-violent demonstrators, drops acid on them out of helicopters, etc., it is pretty obviously failing to live up to its responsibility to protect its citizens. But in fact the UN responsibility-to-protect language doesn’t seem to cover situations where governments are trying to disperse political protests, and those are probably not what the UN’s less democratic members had in mind when they signed up for the “responsibility to protect” language. Here is the relevant passage:

Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity

138. Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from
genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This
responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement,
through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and
will act in accordance with it…

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 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 manifestly fail to protect their populations
from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity…

The question would be whether the Iranian government’s use of and incitement to violence against demonstrators constitute a “crime against humanity”. That would be a pretty high bar to clear, and if it applies to Basij trying to put down protestors (who by now, let’s recall, are throwing rocks, bricks, and Molotov cocktails), it will probably apply to a lot of other situations the US wouldn’t be so happy to include. (Israeli actions in Gaza, certainly.) I had thought it might be interesting to try to raise the Iran situation in the UN Security Council under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine; it’d be voted down by China and Russia, obviously, but it might be useful to take it up anyway. But it seems it’s really a stretch. The global community apparently isn’t yet ready to sign on to the idea that governments aren’t allowed to shoot the odd citizen when they protest against unfair elections.


1 Comment so far
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the language doesn’t seem to put constraints on the type of action that can be taken. So the UN could use this doctrine to insist on overseeing elections, this would, however classify election rigging as a crime against humanity, which seems pretty accurate from a democratic perspective. Also, in a semi-related note I saw this cool vid which compares Iran to other social uprisings, pretty interesting stuff:

Comment by Rosa

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