Special Reports

Responsibility to Protect


One of the positive outcomes from the United Nations Summit in September 2005 was an agreement on Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which commits the UN to taking action to protect people from such crimes as ethnic cleansing and genocide. In a way, this as an international doctrine would 'post hoc' justify the big powers having been involved militarily in BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, and latterly KOSOVO. Undoubtedly it would have been invoked in RUANDA, and may well be primarily aimed at future events in central Africa.

The Summit resolved that 'Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes... we are prepared to take collective action, should peaceful means be inadequate... ('para. 138 of the Draft Statement').

This establishes the principle that governments have a duty to protect their citizens' lives and rights, and if they fail to do so, or indeed if it is a government that is actually committing those crimes, it loses its legitimacy and that the community of nations will take on that protection role even if it means infringing the sovereignty of the state.

This is an important and historic step, a change to the doctrine of sovereignty that can be traced back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. No-one who cares about humanity can mourn the demise of the idea that regimes can do exactly as they please with those who lie in their power, but on the other hand, both the political environment and the way in which R2P will be worked out needs close inspection and development.

It would hardly do for old-style great power adventures like the invasion of IRAQ, but in the category of human rights it is greatly to be welcomed.

R2P could be seen as giving legitimacy to the intervention which Bush and Blair made in Iraq. Not on the given grounds of IRAQ being held to be developing WMD's, but if the intervention had come years earlier in the face of the ethnic assaults Saddam made on the Kurds or the Marsh Arabs or the Shi'a, it is possible that it could have been invoked, and with a lot of international support.

Invasions are not a good answer to dictatorships, although it may be that as things stand, and as the very last resort, if the new criteria fits, the community of nations may regrettably have to decide that it has no alternative but to invade. The problem is that removing the cap of repression often leads to a state of violent conflict between different groups within society, as we see in Iraq.

Therefore, the UN must find a way to apply the brakes on regimes that are already on or setting off down the slippery slope that leads to widespread human rights abuses and genocide. We must act early and non-violently, because to act late and violently can make the situation worse. The summit expresses this challenge with the words: 'We also intend to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to help states build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assist those which are under stress, before crises and conflicts break out.'

In order for this policy to work effectively, it will be necessary to set up ways of identifying and influencing states who are at risk of committing such crimes.

How can this aspiration be addressed? We can trace the development from authoritarian tendencies, through repression of political opposition with arbitrary imprisonment, disappearances and torture, to ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is also the case that non-democratic regimes are far more likely to engage in wars. It is almost unknown for democracies to make war on each other. It is clear therefore that the international community needs to be able to identify states which are embarking on a course that lead from disregard for human rights to abuse of human rights and finally to gross crimes against humanity. We need to find, through the UN, ways to bring pressure that will persuade those regimes that repression is against their own self-interest.

First, we need to identify the people most at risk of committing ever worse human rights abuses. There is no lack of data on this, the shelves of the UN are groaning with reports on governmental performance in many areas, including that of human rights. The trouble with reports is that they are rarely read except by experts and professionals, so the information is in effect hidden from public consciousness. To overcome this problem, it is possible to quantify the report findings, and use the figures so obtained to create a ranking system which will express the human rights performance of all governments in a way that journalists and civil society will find accessible. This has been worked out in several examples, notably in the Observer Index of Human Rights in the 1990s. World Audit have a current ranking system that covers democracy, press freedom and corruption (the latter from Transparency International) published on http://www.worldaudit.org/democracy.htm .

This Index of Human Rights needs to have the imprimatur of the world authority in the same way that UN annual statistics record the minutiae of economic and social progress of all member nations.

It would give the international community, and more importantly the new UN Human Rights Council, early warning of states most at risk of creating an R2P crisis in the future. As a result, the UN will be able to pay attention to those states, offering both carrot and stick to help them clean up their acts. 'to assist those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out'.

The effects of such an Index would be:

A general tendency towards improved human rights performance. Governments, even tyrannical ones, are sensitive to the 'name and shame' principle. Public opinion is powerful, as evidenced by the success of Amnesty International's letter writing campaigns over individual cases. There will be a natural desire to rate more highly on the scale.

All parties know where they stand. At present, tyrants are dealt with in an arbitrary and ad hoc way. The demonisation of a particular tyrant (prior to waging war) will be less easy to do if everyone knows that he is only, say, 6th from the bottom on the Index. Condaleeza Rice's campaign against Tyrannies is welcome and powerful, but regrettably partial, omitting tyrannies apparently useful to the US. 

Governments will doubtless appeal against their ratings. The UN could send in inspectors to review the conditions in the country. Regimes will tend to release prisoners and improve other conditions prior to the appeals inspection.

Some governments may accept advice and assistance in improving their human rights performance, and hence their position on the Index.

Finally, when the Index is established, it can be used to bring specific legal action and targeted sanctions to bear on the very worst offenders.

This programme will meet with political resistance from abusive and potentially abusive regimes, but the alternative - a continuing free-for-all in human rights abuses, punctuated by intermittent Iraq-style interventions, would be much more difficult.

By Richard Lawson - October 2005