Today's date:
Fall 2008

Russia in Georgia: Not a Case of The “Responsibility to Protect”

Gareth Evans is president of the International Crisis Group. He co-chaired the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which introduced the “responsibility to protect” concept. He is the author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (Brookings Institution Press).

Tokyo—The Russian government has argued that its military operations in Georgia were justified by the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), the new approach to dealing with mass atrocity crimes that was embraced unanimously by heads of state and governments sitting as the United Nations General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit. 

President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin have described Georgia’s actions against the local population in South Ossetia as “genocide,” while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explicitly argued that Russia’s use of force was an exercise of the “responsibility to protect,” which applied not only “in the UN when people see some trouble in Africa” but also under the Russian constitution when its own citizens were at risk.

For those of us who have worked long and hard to create a consensus that the world should never again turn its back on another Cambodia or Rwanda, and are conscious of the fragility of that consensus should the impression gain hold that R2P is just another excuse for the major powers to throw their weight around, every misapplication of the R2P—genuine or cynical—is an occasion for alarm.

It needs to be made clear beyond doubt or confusion that whatever other explanation Russia had for its military action in Georgia, the R2P principle was not one of them.

For a start, the primary ground stated for intervention by all the Russian leaders was “to protect Russian citizens.” But this is not an R2P rationale. R2P is about the responsibility of a sovereign state to protect populations within its own borders (and of other states to assist it), and the responsibility of other states to step in with appropriate action if it is unable or unwilling to do so. It does not address the question of an individual country taking direct action to protect its nationals located outside its own borders.

When such action has been taken in the past—as it often has been—the justification has been almost invariably advanced in terms of “self-defense” (since 1945, under Article 51 of the UN Charter). When a country first confers its citizenship on a large number of people outside its borders, and then claims that it is entitled to intervene coercively to protect them, there has usually been some skepticism about the credibility of that justification.

The second major reason for resisting the Russian characterization is that if the R2P norm were applicable here, no compelling case has been made by Russia that the threat posed by Georgia to the South Ossetian population was of a nature and scale as to make necessary or legitimate the use by it of military force.

Five criteria are relevant here, and it is not clear that any of them were satisfied.

First, the seriousness of the threat. It is not at all clear whether any of the UN-specified crimes of “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity” were being committed, or imminently about to be, by Georgia against South Ossetians.

Claims and counterclaims still abound. While Georgia’s actions in attacking Tskhinvali might well be thought to be an unjustified over-reaction to the provocations it cites, the available evidence is not of the weight or clarity that is needed to justify a conclusion that it was “manifestly failing” to protect its population.

Second, the primary purpose of the response. While one purpose of the Russian military intervention may have been to protect South Ossetian civilians under attack, it is highly questionable whether that was the primary motive.

Others appear to have been to establish full Russian control over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia; to dismantle Georgia’s entire military capability; to scuttle its NATO ambitions; and to send a clear signal to other former parts of the Soviet Union as to what would and would not be tolerated by Moscow.

Third, military action only as a last resort. A peaceful solution does not seem to have been out of reach here. An immediate Security Council call for Georgia to cease its military action would have placed Tbilisi under great pressure to comply.

Russia did urge the Security Council on the evening of August 7 to call for a ceasefire, but disagreement over whether the statement should refer to Georgia’s territorial integrity led to Council inaction. With a little more flexibility on all sides, this issue could probably have been finessed.

Russia’s position on the “last resort” issue is weakened by its later attack on Georgian territory outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia—after Georgia had already signed a ceasefire agreement presented to it by mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Fourth, proportionality of response. The introduction of tanks and thousands of troops not only into South Ossetia but also into Abkhazia and Georgia proper appears manifestly excessive. The Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea as well as aerial bombings of Gori, Poti, the Zugdidi region and an aviation plant in Tbilisi went well beyond the necessary minimum.

Fifth, more good than harm from the intervention. It’s very difficult to argue here on the present state of the evidence about refugee outflows and unrestrained reprisal actions by South Ossetian separatists against Georgians, quite apart from concerns about wider implications for regional and global stability.

The final big answer to Russia’s reliance on the UN’s R2P resolution is that there was no Security Council resolution giving it legal authority for military intervention —a gap about which Moscow complained long and hard when the US ignored this requirement in Kosovo in 1999 (not to mention Iraq in 2003).

The 2005 General Assembly position was very clear: When any country seeks to apply forceful means to address an r2p situation, it must do so through the Security Council. Of course, very difficult situations can arise in practice where action widely thought appropriate or necessary in the fact of actual or threatened mass atrocity crimes is blocked by one or more vetoes in the Council. But this was not the case here: No effort was made by Russia to seek Security Council approval.

The Russia-Georgia case highlights the risks of states, whether individually or in a coalition, interpreting global norms unilaterally. The sense of moral outrage at reports of civilians being killed and ethnically cleansed can have the unintended effect of clouding judgment on the best response, which is another reason to channel action collectively through the UN. That other major countries may have been indifferent to this constraint in the past doesn’t justify Russian actions in Georgia. Vigilante justice is always dangerous.