UNITED NATIONS — On the face of it, a commitment by all United Nations member states to reach an understanding on how the world body should intervene to stop genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing would not seem like a major stretch.
But the debate scheduled in the General Assembly for Thursday over the concept, known as “the responsibility to protect,” is producing rancor before it even begins. So much, in fact, that instead of figuring out how to enforce the doctrine, the General Assembly could end up debating the policy’s validity all over again, even though about 150 world leaders already endorsed it in 2005.
Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, tried to set the tone with a speech on Tuesday. Citing his visits to the memorials for 800,000 dead in Rwanda, Mr. Ban said the United Nations had the unique ability to save lives by intervening to stop mass civilian deaths.
“It is high time to turn the promise of the responsibility to protect into practice,” Mr. Ban said, warning against those seeking to reopen the entire debate. “Resist those who try to change the subject or turn our common effort to curb the worst atrocities in human history into a struggle over ideology, geography or economics,” Mr. Ban added. “What do they offer to the victims of mass violence? Rancor instead of substance, rhetoric instead of policy, despair instead of hope.”
Mr. Ban may not have singled anyone out, but it seemed a not-so-subtle reference to the Rev. Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the Nicaraguan president of the General Assembly and a Catholic priest, who issued a position paper last week that created an uproar.
His “Concept Note” suggested that responsibility to protect was redecorated colonialism, and that the true means to eliminate genocide and similar scourges included world financial reform, Security Council reform and drawing a lesson from Jesus.
“Jesus’ emphasis on redistribution of wealth to the poor and on nonviolence reinforces the right perspective on responsibility to protect,” his note said.
Father D’Escoto scheduled a panel discussion before the General Assembly debate featuring speakers like Noam Chomsky, the American academic whose critique of “humanitarian imperialism” discussed the doctrine. Much of the opposition to the doctrine on Thursday is expected to come from traditional opponents of American foreign policy like Cuba, Venezuela and Iran.
While Father D’Escoto has supporters, many delegations reacted with the usual combination of outrage and derision that Father D’Escoto, a former Sandinista foreign minister, has a habit of provoking. The ambassador of one Latin American state said it was shocking that a priest was putting ideological and political visions ahead of human suffering. Peter Maurer, the Swiss ambassador, put it more bluntly, saying, “A priest should know that certain things are better kept to your heart.”
Father D’Escoto’s spokesman, Enrique Yeves, said the president was being unfairly criticized. “The only thing he is doing is calling for a debate on this issue, which is very pertinent,” Mr. Yeves said.
Even without the General Assembly president, the topic — shortened in United Nations-speak to “R2P” — was a hard-fought one. Many developing countries harbor suspicions that the doctrine is merely a Trojan horse for foreign meddling in their domestic affairs. Attempts to slap the label on various crises only deepened those suspicions. As prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair briefly used it as retroactive justification for invading Iraq. France tried to deploy it as the prescription for forcibly delivering aid to Cyclone Nargis victims in Myanmar in 2008. Russia cited it as its tanks rolled into South Ossetia last summer.
Edward C. Luck, whom Mr. Ban appointed his special adviser on the topic but the General Assembly refused to pay, wrote a report this year that divided the concept into three pillars: that all states must protect their populations from atrocities; that the United Nations and other institutions can help countries failing in this duty; and that the international community must react in a series of steps when a large number of civilians are at risk, with military intervention the final response. The fight swirls around that last point, when military intervention might be justified and whether that can be codified into law. “The problem with all of this is the one-dimensional perception that R2P is only about military coercion,” said Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister.
Delegates from African organizations have come to argue that R2P is not just a Western tool. Other proponents hope the debate will inch the discussion toward practical steps on how R2P can be made operational. But some worry that the more it is debated, the less consensus will emerge.
The Bush administration disliked the doctrine on the ground that it might tie American hands in foreign policy decisions, but President Obama basically supports it.
Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, often speaks about how the failure to intercede in Rwanda while she was a top Clinton administration official in Africa is a low point in American foreign policy and her personal career. In a speech last month in Vienna, Ms. Rice acknowledged that the doctrine had been abused in conflicts like Iraq, but argued for the responsibility “to respond to the worst outrages.”
“We know there will be more perpetrators,” she said. “We know there will be more victims. But we must work to ensure that there will also be more justice and fewer and fewer bystanders.”