Thomas Weiss, presidential professor of political science at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, spoke about his experience serving as research director for the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. That group produced the report, The Responsibility to Protect, in 2002, which provided two necessary conditions for intervention: U.N. Security Council authorization and a situation of mass murder or mass ethnic killing.
"At the present moment we are far away from a norm," Weiss said, "even though the discussion started out auspiciously."
"The responsibility to protect has been a norm that's moved faster than any other in contemporary international relations," Weiss said. "There was nothing we could not do [in 1991]. It was Northern Iraq and then onward and upward. Yet the norm failed to "lead to appropriate action later in Rwanda (too little too late) and in Kosovo (too much too soon)."
The commission considered those interventions and former Secretary-General Kofi Annans emphasis on human rights. It adopted the idea of a the duty to intervene rather than the right to intervene. The duty corresponds to the right of affected people to assistance and protection. And while the concept has gained salience through wide discussion, it is still far from operational, Weiss said.
One problem is the need for well-resourced militaries. "The United States gets involved, or thats the end of the story," Weiss said.
But the emerging norm is still poorly enforced, which Weiss attributed to a lack of military creativity in providing protection and disingenuous politics surrounding the debate about the responsibility to protect.
The U.S. doesn't want to be held to doing anything anywhere, Weiss said, mentioning John Bolton and the Sudanese government.
Weiss admitted that because the commission had to include utmost respect for sovereignty, we haven't set the bar very high for defining what sorts of human rights violations are worthy of intervention.
This low threshold for intervention was a point of criticism for Fernando Teson, Tobias Simon Eminent Scholar at the Florida State University College of Law. Teson, a self-proclaimed intervention trigger-happy person, criticized the report on several accounts, though he did laud it because now the idea has entered the world consciousness. Teson criticized the commission for being too deferential to governments and wrongly viewing sovereignty as an independent value.
"I think this notion is mistaken," Teson said. "It's a derivative value. The government and the state are there for the people. Governments do not have any right to anything unless the people give it to them."
"Governments considering invention also do not have the right to intervene unless their citizens support the action," Teson added.
He critiqued the report for ignoring the concept of legitimacy as it applies to sovereignty.
"Is this government legitimate in the eyes of its people?," Teson said, "is the question that states need to ask when thinking of intervening." Since, in his estimation, the government derives its power from its people, if the people no longer consider the government legitimate, then that government has lost its claim to sovereignty.
That loss of legitimacy can come long before the threshold violations that the commission set of mass murder and mass ethnic cleansing, which is why Teson criticized for threshold for being set too high. Teson posited a situation in his own native Argentina in which a military coup might depose the government, execute left-wing leaders and terrify the public.
"They impose a reign of terror where the life of every single citizen is hanging by a thread," Teson said. "In that situation, the people turn to the world."
In Teson's view, such a case invokes the responsibility to protect, regardless of the commission's threshold.
Teson went on to say that "if the United Nations won't authorize intervention, then stop consulting the United Nations."