Protecting Civilians Responsibly

BEIJING – Would China ever be willing to host an international policy discussion about the conditions that would legitimize invading another country to stop genocide or other mass-atrocity crimes from being committed within its borders? Given China’s long history of antagonism to “interference in internal affairs” in general, and to “humanitarian intervention” in particular, and in view of its contribution to the UN Security Council’s long paralysis over much less coercive measures in Syria, you would be in good company if you answered, “No.” But you would be wrong.

I have just been at a two-day meeting in Beijing that wrestled with just this topic. The meeting, hosted by the foreign ministry’s think tank, the China Institute of International Studies, brought together specialist scholars and practitioners from China and the other BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa). And this month, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy will host a conference in Moscow, with local and international experts discussing the same subject.

Both meetings are, to my knowledge, the first of their kind. The fact that they are happening at all – and, if my Beijing experience is any guide, in a constructive, problem-solving spirit – is an encouraging development.

Although no outcome was formally agreed or made public, several themes emerged from the Beijing meeting. Taken together, they offer reason for confidence that it may be possible to recreate international consensus, so long missing in Syria, about how to deal with the hardest mass-atrocity cases.