Tinpots, Crackpots and BRICS: Whatever happened to the ‘Responsibility to Protect’?

Media focus on the BRICS[1] in February 2012 was anything but flattering. As the Syrian regime increased the campaign of violence against its own people, China and Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution on 4 February (not for the first time).

Days later they were again out of step with the rest of the world, in the company of North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, when they voted against a UN General Assembly resolution on 16 February condemning the human rights violations in Syria.

Just three days earlier Navi Pillay, UN High Flickr / Yunchung LeeCommissioner for Human Rights, outlined to the General Assembly in shocking detail human rights abuses in Syria, including a harrowing report that “Children have not been spared. Children have been killed by beating, sniper fire and shelling from Government security forces … As of the end of January security forces have killed more than 400 children”.

Syria is a fragile (and failed) state – the type of state that has since 9/11 risen to the top of the international development agenda – both for security and development concerns. For as the World Bank states in its 2011 World Development Report, no fragile state is in line to meet a single of the Millennium Development Goals; fragile states cast strong negative economic spillovers onto their neighbours – “Countries lose an estimated 0.7 per cent of their annual GDP for each neighbour involved in civil war”.

The international community therefore has to deal with such states; they cannot be left to themselves to disintegrate into their own murderous chaos. Such intervention can take various forms – from the relatively mild censure to strong forms such as sanctions or even military intervention.

In a recent book on Fragile States that I co-edited (and which will be launched at the University of Oxford on 19 March 2012), Lisa Chauvet, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler estimate the costs of failing states to be around US$276 billion per annum. These costs may justify their national sovereignty to be overridden by international intervention.

As shown by the conflict in Syria, other recent conflicts in fragile states, as well as an increasing number of debates on global public goods (including climate change), the limits to national sovereignty is one of the most difficult and sensitive matters in international development. It is particularly so as the idea of national sovereignty may be outdated.

Somalian mother and child

Jurgen Brauer and Robert Haywood, writing in the UNU-WIDER Angle state bluntly that ‘Problems of local or global governance, including violent conflict within and between states, can be ascribed not merely to the faulty exercise of state sovereignty but to its very existence’. Hence, while the international community may be slow to assist the people of Syria due to the obstructive behaviour of China and Russia, international intervention was important in 2011 to protect civilians in fragile states including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Somalia,  Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire.

In light of this another of the BRICS – South Africa – has not had the most flattering coverage in the media. For some inexplicable reason the country is a haven for crackpots. A tragic example in its recent past was when the country became a favourite of AIDS dissidents whose ideas were supported by then president Thabo Mbeki. The consequences were dire: a “genocide by sloth” that according to Nicoli Nattrass lead to around 343,000 avoidable AIDS deaths and 171,000 infections between 1999 and 2007.

In recent weeks the country entertained another crackpot of sorts. At the country’s Mining Indaba held in Cape Town on 6 February the keynote speech was delivered by a climate change skeptic who has been reported to have described climate change as “nothing but a ruse to create a massive global bureaucracy that will rule the world with impunity” (incidentally the same week that other BRICS – China, India and Russia – objected to the EU’s carbon tax on airlines).

The country’s mining sector had perhaps hoped for more leadership and less conspiracy theorizing from the summit because it is a sector under pressure. On 16 February police had to use rubber bullets and water cannon against thousands of mine workers who protested against the retrenchment of 17,000 co-workers at one of the world’s largest platinum mines.

It may seem on the face of it a puzzle why a country with South Africa’s mineral resources has been able to achieve only mediocre economic growth during the greatest ever commodity boom, not to mention losing thousands of mining jobs. What is going on? The influence of crackpot ideas again? Perhaps: the mining sector has been threatened by nationalization. The handling of mineral rights, regulation of the sector by political interests, and nepotism has strangled investment in this sector.

An irony of the past two weeks is a public speech Mbeki made on 16 February condemning international intervention in fragile states, particularly those in Africa. He is reported to have described these (including NATOs role in Libya and the French intervention that helped arrest Gbagbo in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011) as ‘racism’.

Fortunately Mbeki’s opinions are not necessarily shared by the South African government. Still, it is ironic that they are made in a BRICS country at a time when other BRICS have been instrumental in limiting the world’s intervention in Syria.

The irony is especially rich as it comes almost exactly 10 years after the United Nations’ ‘International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty Report’. This report laid down the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Its intellectual father was an African – the Sudanese diplomat Frances Deng.

Ideas are clearly important in international development. Hence the question now is: how can the world deal with fragile states in future given that the BRICS seem to prefer the idea of sovereignty to the idea of the Responsibility to Protect?

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance.



[1] BRICS is the acronym for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

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