State Sovereignty Trumps Human Life
Among the core functional norms of the international political system, a responsibility to protect the individual has been conspicuously lacking. From the apathetic response of the global community to mass murders to the acceptance of “collateral damage” as an everyday cost of war, the value of human life is permanently and consistently rated as less important than the preservation and advancement of state sovereignty. Movements attempting to enshrine this concept of a “responsibility to protect,” often shortened to R2P, have been started since the turn of the century, determined to ensure genocide like that seen in Rwanda is never allowed to happen again.
Right and Responsibility to Protect People
A 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a body formed partly in response to the Rwandan genocide, stated a need for the “internationalization of the human conscience.” In short, the geopolitical intentions of nation-states should not be given priority over the safety and well being of people. The report laid out a chain of responsibility. (1) A state is responsible for the well being of all its inhabitants. (2) If it should fail in this duty, the international community had a right and responsibility to intervene to protect its residents. At the 2005 World Summit, all 191 member states of the UN voted to adopt the R2P principle and agreed to hold one another responsible should they fail to live up to the nature of the agreement.
R2P Needs Support
Despite this monumental shift in the normative understandings of the relationship between the state and the individual, the effort to implement R2P has had many noticeable failures. Wars in Syria and Libya have been allowed to escalate to the point that the states are now largely collapsed, leaving millions of civilians to suffer anarchy and effectively unrestricted violence. The rhetorical shift has been significant, but it has not been manifested as a willingness by states to intervene in conflicts and atrocities. R2P was always meant to be more than just a shift in the tone of discussions surrounding atrocities. It was meant to result in meaningful change in the actions of nation-states. Recent books such as “When We Let People Die” attempt to address the failings of R2P. They examine how the rhetorical achievements of the movement can be transformed into effective assistance for people such as the Rohingya, who despite significant global media coverage are still suffering abuses tantamount to attempted genocide. Thus greater support is needed for organizations such as the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, which despite its significant achievements is still working to see a more stringent enforcement of the principle.
Security Council Fails to Recognize Priority of Human Rights
R2P has resulted in a great many beneficial changes. Normative assumptions on the relationship between the citizen and the state have been changed on an international level, resulting in a greater willingness to engage in humanitarian interventions. The problem, however, is that nation-states are reluctant to acknowledge when another state is failing to protect its own civilians and then to intervene as they have committed themselves to do. For example, in 2007 the governments of Russia and China vetoed a UN motion that would call for peaceful resolutions to government abuses of power in Myanmar. Despite that government being accused of violently suppressing democratic rights, Russia and China argued that it remained an internal matter for Myanmar’s government. In short, sadly nation-states, particularly the P5 Security Council members, have never displayed a willingness to genuinely recognize the priority of human rights over geopolitical interests.
Anyone who cares about protecting human rights should continue to support the Responsibility to Protect principle and those nations that work towards its implementation. A significant amount of progress has been made in recent years, but a great deal of work remains to be done.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.