Archive of posts for category
MJIL Symposium Vol. 13 No. 1

MJIL Symposium: A Response to Mary Crock and Susan Kneebone by Michelle Foster

by Michelle Foster

[Dr Michelle Foster is an Associate Professor and Director of the International Refugee Law Research Programme in the Institute for International Law and the Humanities at the Melbourne Law School.]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

Both Professor Crock and Professor Kneebone, in their respective contributions, raise interesting and important questions about state responsibility in the context of burden sharing/shifting schemes.  Questions surrounding responsibility are vividly raised in the current scheme of transfer of asylum seekers from Australia to Nauru given that the Australian government is determined to maintain the position that once transferred, asylum seekers will be the responsibility of Nauru alone.  This position has been said by both the Australian and Nauruan governments to be supported by the recent passage of the Refugees Convention Act 2012 (Nauru)- an Act that for the first time in Nauruan law establishes a system of refugee status determination, including merits and judicial review.  Notwithstanding this, there is reason to believe, as does Crock, that ‘the entire scheme is a paper façade for a system that will be run by Australians and for Australia’.  The very fact that the Nauruan Immigration Regulations 2000 now recognize a special visa category entitled the ‘Australian Regional Processing’ visa supports the notion that at the very least the Nauruan government understands that it is dealing with an Australian problem.  Further, while the Refugees Convention Act 2012 is an important step in establishing a domestic system of RSD in Nauru, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio, Guterres, has noted recently, there is no ‘experience or expertise to undertake the tasks of processing and protecting refugees’ in Nauru.  Given the complexity of modern refugee status determination, including the hundreds of high level appellate decisions in Australia alone elucidating the key elements of the refugee definition, it is implausible to believe that Nauru- a country with a population of 9,300 people – would have the resources to make first level determinations of refugee status or to populate the new refugee status review tribunal without considerable assistance from Australia.

As Professor Kneebone rightly observes, under the principles of state responsibility, states can be jointly and severally responsible for harm.  In the present context this harm may take the form of refoulement if refugees are returned to a risk of persecution due to an inadequate status determination procedure including lack of legal representation, as well as the harm suffered by asylum seekers awaiting status determination and, subsequent to recognition as refugees, resettlement in Australia or elsewhere.

Further, Professor Kneebone notes that responsibility could also be considered at the national level, discussing specifically the duty of care owed by detaining authorities.  In this regard it is also worth noting that while the Australian government has attempted to shield the transfer to and treatment of asylum seekers in Nauru from judicial scrutiny by Australian courts by amending s 198A of the Migration Act, the High Court of Australia has displayed its willingness to scrutinize the substance- not merely form- of executive action.  In M61, the High Court rejected the Minister’s characterization of the refugee status determination system established in Christmas Island as ‘non-statutory’ and outside the operation of Australian domestic law, finding instead that the system was subject to judicial review by Australian federal courts and was required to be operated according to the rules of procedural fairness and in compliance with Australian law.  While asylum seekers have now been removed to a foreign territory- as opposed merely to an ‘excised’ territory- there may nonetheless be interesting questions around the scope of the High Court to review Australia’s actions on Nauru.

In short, Professor Crock and Professor Kneebone have raised some important questions about Australia’s responsibility- both under international and domestic law- that will continue to be debated as Australia’s policies of burden shifting continue to evolve.


MJIL Symposium: A Response to Michelle Foster by Susan Kneebone

by Susan Kneebone

[Susan Kneebone is a Professor at Monash University]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

In her article Associate Professor Michelle Foster argues that there are limits imposed by the Refugee Convention and international law to the circumstances in which states may lawfully engage in transfer arrangements for asylum seekers, euphemistically known as ‘responsibility sharing’. In that and an earlier article,[1] to which French CJ in the High Court in Plaintiff M70 referred with approval,[2] Associate Professor Foster outlined the content of the rights to which both states who engage in ‘responsibility sharing’ must adhere. She said:

the better analysis is that the transferring state must at least consider … rights acquired by the refugee (whether or not status has yet been determined) by virtue of mere physical presence which includes non-discrimination, religious freedom, rights relating to property, access to the courts, rights regarding rationing, the right to elementary education, non-penalisation for illegal entry, freedom from constraints on movement … as well as non-refoulement.[3]

As Associate Professor Foster implies in her updated commentary of her recent article, there are few states within the region which can, or are willing to, provide these rights, in order to satisfy these standards. Associate Professor Foster explains that the new Subdivision on Regional Processing in the Migration Act makes it clear that in order to enter into a cooperative arrangement with another country in the region, Australia does not expect that the other country will adhere to the full set of rights in the Refugee Convention. She observes that Australia has thus ‘legitimated what can only be described as a responsibility-shifting rather than responsibility-sharing regime.’

In my opinion it is possible to push that conclusion and its implications further by reference to broad principles of state responsibility under international law, which have been used recently in other forced migration contexts. For example, in Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia, it was decided that there had been breaches of obligations by both Cyprus and Russia under art 4 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms that related to the trafficking and death of the Applicant’s daughter. Under art 12 of the International Law Commission’s (ILC) Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts there is a breach of an international obligation ‘when an act of that State is not in conformity with what is required of it by that obligation, regardless of its origin or character’. The current evidence about the conditions in which asylum seekers are held on Nauru, including delays in establishing processing, and lack of information about ‘durable solutions’, shows that the Australian government, with the apparent acquiescence of Nauru, is creating an atmosphere of extreme uncertainty and stress, leading to incidents of self-harm and mental distress. Could this be regarded as ‘inhuman and degrading’ treatment, or even torture? Further, the principles of state responsibility establish that states can be jointly and severally responsible for harm committed under their ‘watch’. If responsibility sharing in this sense applies, might not states such as Nauru to consider their responsibility as states carefully before entering into bilateral arrangements with Australia?

Interestingly, these principles of state responsibility are recognised in the Expert Panel Report. As Associate Professor Foster correctly indicates, Australia is also ‘at risk of violating wider international human rights obligations including the Convention on the Rights of the Child’.

The issue of responsibility could also be considered at the national levels. The duty of care owed by the detaining authorities to detainees now appears to be well established in Australian law.[4] Might it be argued on tortious principles that either Australia individually or Nauru and Australia jointly owe a duty of care to the detainees on Nauru? On the facts of Ruhani v Director of Police (No 2) it was very clear that Australia controlled the circumstances of detention under the Pacific Plan #1. Under the current arrangements, it seems that Nauru has taken more control of the asylum seekers, which includes the introduction of legislation to enable processing under Nauruan law. Is this tantamount to assuming responsibility under both national and international law for the fate of the asylum seekers on its territory?

[1] Michelle Foster, ‘Protection Elsewhere: The Legal Implications of Requiring Refugees to Seek Protection in Another State’ (2007) 28 Michigan Journal of International Law 223.

[2] M70/2011 v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship (2011) 244 CLR 144, 183 (‘M70’).

[3] Foster, above n 1, 417 (citations omitted). Note: This was a view that the majority the High Court appeared to share in M70 because it was consistent with the criteria in the then s 198A(3) of the Migration Act.

[4] S v Secretary, Department of Immigration (2005) 143 FCR 217.


MJIL Symposium: A Response to Michelle Foster by Mary Crock

by Mary Crock

[Mary Crock is Professor of Public Law at the University of Sydney]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

Although Australia identifies as a member of the United Nation’s ‘Western European and Others’ Group (‘WEOG’), it has now enacted laws that place it much more comfortably as an Asian nation. Unlike the WEOG countries, few Asian nations are party to the Refugee Convention (‘Convention’), or to any of the major human rights conventions other than the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Most countries in this region understand and (generally) conform with the non-refoulement obligation enshrined in s 33 of the Convention, but they will not entertain the notion that refugees on their territories enjoy any economic or social rights. The presence of refugees is tolerated at best. At worst they are treated as ‘simple’ illegal migrants and subjected to detention, harassment and discrimination.

Relying on the recommendations of a committee that notably did not include anyone with legal expertise, the Labor government has now moved to create a regime that Associate Professor Foster demonstrates is decidedly un-WEOG. It is squarely at odds with all but the most basic tenets of refugee and human rights law. Non-refoulement is the only principle of refugee law acknowledged in express terms. It is a regime that reifies the people in respect of whom the non-refoulement obligation is owed by denying in language that asylum seekers have any rights or agency in the protection process. The protection of affected refugees has become a privilege to be granted at the absolute (non-reviewable and non-compellable) discretion of the Minister for Immigration.


MJIL Symposium: The Pacific Solution Mark II: Responsibility Shifting in International Refugee Law

by Michelle Foster

[Dr Michelle Foster is an Associate Professor and Director of the International Refugee Law Research Programme in the Institute for International Law and the Humanities at the Melbourne Law School.]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

The need for international co-operation to address the challenge of refugee flows is uncontroversial in principle: it is recognised in the Preamble to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (‘Refugee Convention’), in regional refugee treaties and in the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, too often states have relied on the notion of international co-operation to engage in what is more accurately understood as burden-shifting rather than burden-sharing arrangements. In my article I argue that while the Refugee Convention does not explicitly authorise nor prohibit the transfer of refugees between states party to the Convention, it imposes limits on the extent to which states may lawfully engage in responsibility sharing regimes. Drawing in particular on the High Court of Australia’s decision in M70/2011 v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship (‘M70’), I outline the content of the constraints imposed at international law, including the need for all parties to an arrangement to be Refugee Convention parties, and the obligation on a transferring state to ensure that non-refoulement will be respected, which in turn requires that the receiving state has an adjudication procedure in place to assess refugee status, that the receiving state guarantees access to that system, and that the receiving state interprets the Refugee Convention in a manner that respects the ‘true and autonomous’ meaning of the refugee definition contained in art 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention. In addition, those rights already acquired by a refugee by virtue of physical presence in the sending state (for example rights to education, religious freedom, and access to the courts) must be respected in the receiving state.

Since publication of this article, the Australian government has moved swiftly to implement the ‘disincentives … to actively discourage irregular and dangerous maritime voyages to Australia for the purposes of claiming protection or seeking asylum’ recommended by its Expert Panel in August 2012. In order to do so it was necessary to amend the Migration Act 1958 (‘Migration Act’) to remove the protections which the High Court relied upon in M70 to invalidate the declaration concerning Malaysia. In my view the amendments to the Migration Act effected by passage of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Act 2012 (‘Act’), and the subsequent transfer of putative refugees from Australia to Nauru, place Australia at risk of violation of the Refugee Convention. Before outlining my core concerns I make the initial observation that while there is considerable emphasis on Nauru constituting a ‘regional processing country,’ there is nothing regional about the current arrangements. They are not implemented pursuant to a wider regional agreement (in contrast for example to the Dublin Regulation in Europe), nor do they entail any reciprocity since Nauru has no refugee intake other than that resulting from implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding (‘MOU’) with Australia.


MJIL Symposium: A Response to James Stewart by Darryl Robinson

by Darryl Robinson

[Darryl Robinson is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University, Faculty of Law]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

I am very grateful for James Stewart’s comments on “How Command Responsibility Got So Complicated”. Professor Stewart and I are engaged in similar projects (criminal law theory and international criminal law (‘ICL’)) and immersed in similar literature, so our discussions are always very helpful to me, even though we at times reach different conclusions. Professor Stewart raises several interesting points, and I cannot quite do justice to all of them. I offer the following thoughts on the main points.

As a preliminary point, Professor Stewart rightly notes that people at the Tribunal had done a frenzied review of the relevant literature and so were at least aware of these issues. I take that point very much. Academics are often quick to criticise courts and institutions for their alleged failures to consider this or that issue, when perhaps the relevant actors were in fact deeply aware of it but chose not to elaborate on it given the hundred other priorities they had to attend to. I also sympathise with judges, who are either criticised for failure to elaborate on theoretical underpinnings, or alternatively are criticised for their wordy, theoretical decisions. For precisely these reasons, I ‘emphatically acknowledged’ that the Tribunals were operating in a pioneering phase, dealing with countless questions and constructing doctrinal rules from diverse authorities, and hence could not give detailed consideration to every fine point.[1]


MJIL Symposium: A Response to Ilias Bantekas and Jens Ohlin by Darryl Robinson

by Darryl Robinson

[Darryl Robinson is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University, Faculty of Law]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

I am delighted to participate in this online symposium, this time at the receiving end. The emergence of online symposia is a commendable innovation which I am eager to support. When academic conversation is carried out through journal articles, the rhythm is glacially slow. Years pass between argument, counterargument and response. Online symposia provide a rapid cycle of appraisal, critique, response and clarification, both accelerating and deepening our understanding.

In this instance I am doubly delighted, as I literally cannot imagine a more qualified group of reviewers on this topic. Ilias Bantekas is one of the most prominent authorities on command responsibility. I relied considerably on his insightful and thoughtful works on command responsibility as well as his valuable treatise on international criminal law (ICL).  Jens Ohlin and James Stewart are both bringing the rigour of criminal law theory to ICL, and doing so in an ambitious, exciting, open-minded way that does not simply export national concepts.  I will address the comments by Professor Bantekas and Professor Ohlin here, and address James’ comments separately.

My argument — that the discourse on command responsibility has slowly tied itself into unnecessary knots — was not necessarily one that was guaranteed a warm reception in the ICL community. I am therefore triply delighted, in that both Professor Bantekas and Professor Ohlin seem largely convinced about my central points: that an early misstep in Tribunal jurisprudence led to an internal contradiction, and that later efforts to deny or, subsequently, to solve the contradiction, have led to increasingly elusive or complex assertions about the nature of command responsibility (eg, it’s a mode of liability, a separate offence, it’s both, it’s neither, etc).

In my article, my prescription is that by reversing the first misstep and accepting a causal contribution requirement, we can reconcile the law with the culpability principle. The existing general category of accessory liability accurately conveys the commander’s responsibility, and we don’t need to invent obscure, vague, hybrid or variegated descriptions of the nature of command responsibility. Professor Ohlin and Professor Bantekas both move to the next question, which is a normative assessment from a legislator’s perspective – what we might do with a blank canvass.


MJIL Symposium: A Response to Darryl Robinson by James Stewart

by James G. Stewart

[James Stewart is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law. He is currently undertaking a Global Hauser Fellowship at New York University School of Law.]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

It is a pleasure to be invited to comment on Professor Darryl Robinson’s excellent new article How Command Responsibility Got So Complicated. His meticulous research has, once again, advanced our understanding considerably. Indeed, this particular article is but the most recent manifestation of Professor Robinson’s groundbreaking commitment to marrying criminal theory and international criminal doctrine in ways that shed new light on dilemmas that have plagued scholars and practitioners for too long. In this piece, he focuses on the much-disputed physical contribution of the failure to punish limb of superior responsibility. Some say that a superior can be convicted of genocide, for example, for failing to punish acts of her subordinates who perpetrated the crime, but Professor Robinson joins others who protest that this violates the principle of culpability. How can you be held responsible for a crime to which you did not contribute? Conversely, those who argue that failures to punish can be re-imagined as a separate conduct-type crime stripped of consequences to overcome the participation problem ignore that international law does not support that reading. Instead, Professor Robinson concludes that subsuming superior responsibility within everyday notions of accessorial liability offers a more elegant solution.

I feel compelled to start my review of the piece with a confession of sorts. In my former incarnation as an Appeals Counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (‘ICTY’), I had a hand in formulating the Prosecution’s position on superior responsibility in a range of the cases that are key to Professor Robinson’s argument (Hadžihasanović, Orić, and Halilović). In part, I admit this in order to disclose a potential impurity in my views on the topic (although, for balance, my own views were different from the position ultimately adopted by the Prosecution in these cases, contrary to the conclusion ultimately reached by the Appeals Chamber that ruled on them, and I may have changed them again since reading Professor Robinson’s provocative article). For present purposes, though, this experience is also germane since it leads me to think that Professor Robinson might be too quick in arguing that the ICTY has not wrestled with these issues; to the contrary, all sides were engaged in a frenzied review of much of the literature Professor Robinson cites in an attempt to deal with precisely these problems, although no one came close to addressing the topic with anything approaching the sophistication Professor Robinson now offers. Sometimes an absence of judicial reasoning just conceals issues too complex to articulate.


MJIL Symposium: A Response to Darryl Robinson by Jens Ohlin

by Jens David Ohlin

[Jens David Ohlin is an Associate Professor of Law at Cornell Law School; he blogs at LieberCode.]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

Professor Darryl Robinson is to be commended for untangling what has to be one of the most tangled webs in international criminal law theory. The settled jurisprudence on command responsibility is anything but settled; it is contradictory, confusing, and full of conclusory statements and pronouncements that don’t hold water.

With Professor Robinson, I’ve viewed with suspicion the recent trend toward arguing that command responsibility is a form of omission liability, or even a separate offence. Regardless of whether one goes the full route and declare it a separate offence, this basic idea is the same: that command responsibility represents a conviction for dereliction of duty, for failing to live up to the demands of the law on the part of the commander, such as punishing subordinates. Under this argument, command responsibility is not a form of vicarious liability for the actions of subordinates who commit atrocities.

Like Professor Robinson, I have always found this view difficult to square with both the history and contemporary practice of command responsibility. In particular, Re Yamashita certainly reads like a case of vicarious responsibility, in that the military commission charged him with the full force of the atrocities — and executed him for it. If it was just an omission offence, then it is hard to square that with both the rhetoric and result in re Yamashita.

At this point in the analysis, though, I might have some small disagreements with Professor Robinson.


MJIL Symposium: A Response to Darryl Robinson by Ilias Bantekas

by Ilias Bantekas

[Ilias Bantekas is Professor of Law at Brunel University in London.]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

Causality is central in the operation of criminal attribution in all legal systems. It makes sense of course that liability for particular conduct exists where it is proven that it caused the harmful outcome which constitutes the actus reus of an offence. Causation is the fundamental link between conduct and outcome and is as a result the basis of liability. One would have thought that since the doctrine of causation emerged from domestic criminal justice systems, its transplantation to the various forms of liability under international law would have followed this rationale. Instead, as Professor Robinson aptly points out, it has been disregarded as irreconcilable with certain contours of the command responsibility doctrine. It is thus claimed by those opposed to its application that a commander who fails to punish his subordinates incurs command responsibility not because his failure to repress caused the commission of crimes by his subordinates. Rather, a commander’s pre-existing duty to punish suffices to hold him criminally liable irrespective of any direct or even indirect harm caused as a result of his inaction.

I have to admit that although I did give the matter some consideration in chapter 4 of my international criminal law textbook, I failed to give it the attention it desperately required. Logic dictates that a commander who fails to punish subordinates that committed a serious crime can only incur liability under two distinct strands: a) for his omission as such; and b) for subsequent harm directly caused by his omission. The first strand does not constitute a crime under international law nor an independent form of international criminal liability. It is no doubt a dereliction of duty under national military law and may conceivably be upheld as an aggravating circumstance in respect of another international crime. The second strand in my opinion is the one found in all those provisions dealing with command responsibility, from art 7(3) of the ICTY Statute to art 28 of the ICC Statute. If causality is not required for failing to punish subordinate criminality, then what exactly is the offence for which the commander is liable? It is inconceivable that the doctrine of command responsibility emerged one evening wholly disassociated from the criminal law theory of the civil law and common law traditions, both of which require causality for the attribution of liability. This does not mean that a commander who fails to punish is absolved from all liability. We have already stated that he may incur liability for dereliction of duty under national law. Moreover, his international liability may be engaged if as a result of his failure his subordinates are encouraged to commit further crimes and in fact do so. Finally, the international community may, if it views this to be a significant issue, discuss the possibility of establishing a new failure to punish offence under international law that does not require a causal link to further crimes. This, however, will open up a plethora of issues that no one is keen to touch, including a reappraisal of the foundations of command responsibility itself.

MJIL Symposium: How Command Responsiblity Got So Complicated

by Darryl Robinson

[Darryl Robinson is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University, Faculty of Law]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

Much has been written about command responsibility. In my article, I argue that views on the nature of command responsibility have become unnecessarily obscure and convoluted, and that the problem flows from an early misstep in the jurisprudence. If we revisit the first misstep, a simple and elegant solution is available.

Famously, early Tribunal jurisprudence concluded that the ‘failure to punish’ branch of command responsibility is irreconcilable with a contribution requirement. It therefore rejected any requirement that the commander’s dereliction contributed to core crimes. This however generated a contradiction, because Tribunal jurisprudence (1) recognizes the culpability principle, whereby causal contribution is necessary to share in liability for a crime and yet (2) uses command responsibility to convict commanders of core crimes without causal contribution.

Subsequent efforts to deny the resulting contradiction, and later efforts to avoid the contradiction, have spawned many inconsistent, complex and convoluted claims about command responsibility. These include the descriptions of command responsibility as responsibility for-the-acts-but-not-for-the-acts, as a ‘sui generis’ hybrid whose nature has not been explained, as neither-mode-nor-offence, or as sometimes-mode-sometimes-offence. Many such descriptions are elusively vague, and necessarily so, because clarity would reveal the contradiction.


MJIL Symposium: A Response to Ramesh Thakur and Thomas Weiss by Spencer Zifcak

by Spencer Zifcak

[Spencer Zifcak is Allan Myers Professor of Law and Director of the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University.]

This post is part of the MJIL vol13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

I begin this response by acknowledging the two commentators. Ramesh Thakur and Tom Weiss are, together with Gareth Evans, the pre-eminent writers in the field — as well as each having played formative role in the creation of the Responsibility to Protect (‘R2P’) doctrine in the first place. So, it is a privilege that both have chosen to write a commentary on my article and it is my pleasure now to respond.

Plainly, Professor Thakur and I agree on his four summative points, so there is no need for me to comment further on them. He does, however, point to three matters he believes I have missed, so, let me say something about each.

Professor Thakur observes that, in the Syrian case, a perverse incentive exists for the Syrian rebels to respond brutally to governmental repression in order to internationalise the conflict and thereby encourage external intervention on their side. I had neither seen any prior commentary to this effect nor had this occurred to me. So, I’m grateful for the observation.

My only reservation about it is that it does seem to me difficult to make any valid, general comment about how the rebels are thinking, and why they are acting in the way that they are, because the rebel cause is so divided. As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley note in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, the opposition is an eclectic assortment of ‘Muslim Brothers, Salafis, peaceful protesters, armed militants, Kurds, soldiers who have defected, tribal elements and foreign fighters’. And then there is Al-Qaeda. So, I accept completely that some parts of the rebel leadership will be angling for external intervention but I’m not at this stage sure which ones and how representative they are. Further, if brutality and crimes against humanity are part of a rebel strategy, it does seem to be counter-productive. It is clear that international support for the rebel cause has waned in direct proportion to the increasing number of reports emerging from Syria of rebel atrocities. And so has support within Syria itself. If a vote were taken of Syrians now, it is by no means clear that the rebels would prevail over the regime.

Professor Thakur then refers to the existence of the Sunni-Shi’a split in the country and in the region. I don’t think I missed this one but may not have made it as explicit as it should be. The tragedy within Syria is that initial calls for democratic reform have morphed into a fully-fledged civil war on Sunni-Shi’a lines. And Professor Thakur is right to point to the fact that the Sunni-Shi’a battle has profound regional implications as well. Again, tragically, the civil war has drawn influential regional actors into the fray, so much so that the Syrian conflict already appears, at one level, to be a proxy war between Iran/Iraq on one side, and the Saudis, Qataris and allies, on the other. This is one critical factor that militates against any form of external intervention, as any intervention will alienate significant regional powers with unpredictable and inevitably adverse consequences both ways.

Professor Thakur points to my failure to discuss the Brazilian ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ (‘RWP’) proposal. He is right. I didn’t. I footnoted it and that is all. There were two reasons for this. First, I’ve read it many times and have not found it particularly helpful. In my view, it is not much more than a statement of the obvious, in the wake of the mistakes made by the international community in the Libyan case. Secondly, one of my major objectives in the article was to encapsulate the standing of R2P following Libya and Syria. I did that in a series of propositions at the end of each section. These propositions in part resemble those in the Brazilian document but are more specific, detailed and, I hope, more helpful. So, I didn’t want to muddy these waters by setting out to compare and contrast the two encapsulations. And since one was my own, obviously I chose to give it most prominence. Professor Thakur is right, however, to point out that the Brazilian concept note has provoked some new thinking. So, I will take that as an encouragement to explore the discussion while maintaining my reservations about the Brazilian note itself.

Professor Thakur points to two key elements in the RWP proposal that he believes are significant. The Security Council should ensure that it sets in place a monitoring and review mechanism when any intervention is commenced so as to ensure compliance with the Council’s resolutions. It should also formulate an agreed set of criteria on the basis of which to debate and mobilise consensus upon an R2P military intervention.

The second one is interesting. Gareth Evans has been a tireless advocate of the Security Council’s adoption of such prudential criteria and I am in wholehearted agreement with him on this. I note that Professor Thakur too, has joined Evans in a recent letter in which both support the deployment of the prudential criteria developed in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (‘ICISS’) report, the High-Level Panel report and Kofi Annan’s In Larger Freedom. It was in this context that I wrote the sentence that appears to have surprised Professor Weiss. In the article, I wrote that ‘judgments as to whether and when to intervene are likely in the foreseeable future to be made case by case rather than according to predetermined, universally applicable principles’. This was a reference to my earlier discussion about the desirability of adopting prudential criteria. There is substantial opposition, not least amongst the P-5 to the Security Council’s adoption of the criteria, but one can always hope.

I note Professor Weiss’s comment that applying universal principles may have a detrimental effect. I’m not sure whether he was referring here to Evans-Thakur prudential criteria or something else. But if it was in relation to the criteria, I think his criticism is misconceived. It is precisely to avoid the prospect of double-standards that I support the criteria’s application. The South would have far more confidence that they would not be subject to neo-imperial meddling if they could be assured that the relevant criteria including necessity, proportionality and balance of consequences were consistently and openly discussed and applied when decisions as to intervention were being made.

He may be right on another point, however. Yes, it’s true, lawyers love criteria. We think they’re really useful as a means of structuring constructive deliberation and decision-making. But political scientists? Perhaps we are as different as Weiss surmises.

On another matter, Professor Weiss is clearly right. Humanitarian impulse rather than humanitarian imperative is the better descriptor. I will use it. But his last sentence rather puzzles me.

On what basis can it properly be said that if Assad leaves Syria, his exit will have in part been attributable to the R2P norm? Apart from the occasional and cursory reference to R2P in Security Council resolutions decrying the regime’s failure to protect its people from atrocity, for reasons I’ve outlined in some considerable detail, the Syrian case is passing R2P by. Neither the regime, nor its rebel opponents, nor the major regional and international players, seem to be concerned with it at all. Each pursues its agenda with absolute ruthlessness.

R2P is a noble doctrine. For the time being, however, it will have to play on a different and less contested field.

MJIL Symposium: A Response to Spencer Zifcak by Thomas Weiss

by Thomas G Weiss

[Thomas G Weiss is a Presidential Professor of Political Science at The CUNY Graduate Center and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies]

This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

Professor Spencer Zifcak’s article on the international reactions to Libya and Syria is thorough and thoughtful, and well worth reading for the treasure trove of documentation. But I was frankly surprised by his unsurprising conclusion that ‘judgments as to whether and when to intervene are likely in the foreseeable future to be made case by case rather than according to predetermined, universally applicable principles’.

How else?  Obviously, political scientists and lawyers have quite different expectations.

Undoubtedly the loss of life and suffering is much higher in Syria than in Libya, and it has gotten worse in the time taken to get Professor Zifcak’s article into print. The death toll has risen fivefold — now approaching 25 000 — and the joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has resigned from his ‘mission impossible’, an assignment that trouble-shooter Lakhdar Brahimi has assumed.

The paralysis amidst atrocities and killings in Syria suggests, in case there was any doubt, that robust action in one crisis does not necessarily foreshadow similar efforts elsewhere. Inconsistency is not only the hobgoblin of little minds but also the proverbial bottom line for political decision-making. Rhetoric is one thing, tough decisions are another. Talk is cheap, action is not.

Indeed, to expect anything else is to play into the hands of the usual spoilers in the global South — the Nicaraguas and Cubas, the Zimbabwes and Sudans — who point to the double standard of the Responsibility to Protect (‘R2P’) as neo-imperial meddling.  They, of course, would prefer the old single standard for mass atrocities and do nothing because state sovereignty is sacrosanct and includes the license for mass murder. The best should never be the enemy of the good — for R2P or anything else.

In describing the present global governance of mass atrocities, humanitarian ‘impulse’ is more accurate than humanitarian ‘imperative’. The latter entails an obligation to treat victims similarly and react to all crises consistently — in effect, to deny the relevance of politics, which consists of drawing lines and weighing options and available resources. Yet humanitarian action remains desirable not obligatory. The humanitarian impulse is permissive; the humanitarian imperative is peremptory. Similarly, R2P is not a peremptory obligation but a desirable and emerging norm whose consolidation can result in occasional enforcement when the politics are right.

Politics and military capacity ultimately determine whether, when, where and why to protect and assist war-affected populations. However shocking to the conscience a particular emergency and however hard or soft the applicable public international law, when political will and a military capacity exist, humanitarian space will open and war victims will be assisted and protected. In Libya the moral, legal, political, and military dimensions dovetailed under the R2P rubric. Rather than speaking truth to power, the value-added of R2P was speaking truth with power. And if Assad leaves Syria, it will in part be attributed to the evolving power of the R2P norm.