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Iraq and the Responsibility to Protect

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One of the UN’s most significant accomplishments in the past few years has been the General Assembly’s adoption of what is called the Responsibility to Protect. This states that not only do states have an obligation to protect their residents from genocide and crimes against humanity, but that if they fail to meet this obligation other states have a responsibility to protect the threatened population.

The international community is failing to meet this obligation now in Darfur. It is also in danger of ignoring this commitment in Iraq.

If the United States withdraws its military forces from Iraq without ensuring that there is a force there to protect the civilian population, there is a significant danger that a militant Shi’a government will come to power and initiate an effort to drive the entire Sunni population from Iraq or will systematically slaughter the Sunni population—in clear violation of the Genocide Convention.

This danger does not, in my view, mean that the United States should keep the bulk of its military forces in Iraq. It is clear that the American military presence is delaying efforts to reach an internal political settlement and strengthening the radical insurgency that seeks only chaos.

Yet we have an obligation to consider what can be done to reduce the risk to the Sunni population as American forces are withdrawn. 

The American military presence in Iraq is now, as President Bush has pointed out, authorized by a UN Security Council Resolution, which is, in fact, the sole legal basis for our military presence. The United States needs now to start working with other governments on a substitute military presence authorization by the Security Council limited to preventing genocide and crimes against humanity.

It will not be easy to persuade other countries to contribute to this force or to figure out how it can function to perform this mission in the aftermath of an American military withdrawal. Yet unless we get agreement on such a force now and begin to constitute it so that it can deploy as the United States withdraws, the international community will some day soon be confronted with another genocide and have no good way to bring it to an end.

If we fail to prevent these atrocities in Iraq, it is hard to see how the commitment to the Responsibility to Protect could survive or how supporters of the concept could explain their failure to look ahead and respond before it is too late.

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