The notion of the responsibility to protect in relation to mass atrocity crimes has at last come into its own, according to former Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans.
Speaking yesterday (23 November) in Sydney as part of the Law, Governance and Social Justice Series, Evans spoke on the topic of 'Law, Justice and Mass Atrocity Crimes'.
He said that while the period since the Second World War had seen myriad "conscience-shocking situations" - such as massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica - the "old habits on non-intervention died hard".
"Political will [to intervene] has been profoundly lacking for centuries," he said. "All international law is ultimately political."
However, Evans said 2011 is the year in which the recognition of the responsibility to protect has "truly come of age" and the international community is at last showing a preparedness to deal with future situations of potential mass atrocity.
In 2004, Evans was part of the UN Secretary-General's Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which produced a report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, outlining the responsibility of the international community to prevent and stop war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
"[This year has seen] conceptual agreement and real action," said Evans, referring to the international community's decision to intervene in Libya at a time when a massacre in Misrata seemed imminent.
"That intervention unquestionably worked," he said. "No-one wants to return to the inaction of the past."
Despite this, Evans pointed out that the notion of a responsibility to protect is still not considered to be International Customary Law, but is certainly now a norm of international law.
"This has cut away the excuse for inaction," he said. "But there is no new rule of ICL. It's a new norm ... a standard of behaviour, but it is premature to describe it as anything more than that."
Evans also pointed out that in international law, justice and peace do not always go hand in hand. "Demands do clash, and hard choices must sometimes be made," he said. "Ongoing conflicts pose real world policy dilemmas."
Evans referred to the case to Charles Taylor, the Liberian dictator who was offered asylum in Nigeria in 2003 in order to bring to an end 14 years of civil war. However, in 2006, under immense pressure from the international community, Nigeria handed Taylor over for prosecution in the International Criminal Court. Evans said that while this decision might have been seen by some as leading to justice, it has also led to other conflicts dragging on longer than they perhaps would have.
"Now, dictators are not interested in asylum," he said, referring to the case of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who has refused asylum on the grounds of, "Look what happened to Charles Taylor".
"Should universal justice yield to the demands of peace?" asked Evans.
The Law, Governance and Social Justice Series was initiated by the law faculty of the University of New South Wales and is co-sponsored with the University of Sydney and the University of Technology, Sydney.