The Future of Human Rights & The Responsibility to Protect


Vaclav Havel once asked “Is human responsibility unable to keep pace with human civilization?”[1]  The answer appears to be “yes” in cases of human rights violations and the fear of violating state sovereignty.  However, the norms regarding the fate of peoples threatened by powerful forces of state actors are slowly changing. If human rights are going to survive they must be accommodated within the realm of international law.  Michael Goodhart states that the “idea of human rights, the paradigm and discourse” must be defended.[2] Therefore, the activities of all governments must be subject to the highest of standards at times of war and peace.  To expect anything less would be foolish and very damaging to the maintenance of international peace.  A nation cannot be considered sovereign unless it makes every attempt to protect all peoples within its borders.  A sovereign nation must be willing to protect the “right to existence, the right to the respect of a people’s national and cultural identity and the right to retain a people’s peaceful possession of its territory and to return to it if expelled.”[3]  The Responsibility to Protect (RP2) is considered to be an “emerging norm”[4] within the realm of international relations. If a nation is not willing to protect the most basic human rights and needs at all times it must be understood that they are ignoring the norm that is quickly become accepted worldwide, as globalization has allowed for the rapid transit of information regarding the most egregious violations of human rights.   As such, global citizens who witness such acts from a distance must demand that governments take action in preventing or ending violations of human rights through regional or international organizations designed to protect the interests of all cultures.

If “the denial of human rights is a denial of peace,”[5] how, then do we promote human rights in a world where events such as the genocide continue unchallenged in many regions?  The first step must be to increase public awareness not only of the events but also of the concept of jus cogens (just thought).  The worldwide sense of responsibility must be renewed and enhanced through education and dialogue.  Attention must be paid to territories that are failing to fulfill their responsibilities.  State sovereignty implies that states have responsibilities that include protecting the rights of people to have their most basic needs met, basic decencies protected and the right to be “reasonably secure about prospects of survival.”[6]  Franklin Roosevelt also defined four freedoms (speech and expression, worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear), which he believed needed to be protected at any cost.[7]   If a government fails to provide the most basic of human rights and attempt to secure the most basic human needs the global community has the responsibility to work toward a greater understanding of the issues involving the state’s failure and to act if necessary.

The United Nations (UN) is an international organization with not only the ability, but also a responsibility to act when states do not fulfill their own sovereign responsibilities; though reform of many aspects of the United Nations is drastically needed in order to meet this goal.  Member nations need to end their inability to cooperate by accepting the responsibilities vital for living in a highly connected global civilization.  General agreements have taken place regarding the doctrine of RP2 by members of both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.[8]  The UN Security Council, in particular, has the ability to wield great power but is hesitant to apply force when it is truly needed.  The UN, as of late, has only responded to cultural crises, such as genocide, after atrocities have occurred for extended periods of time.  The UN must undergo significant reform in order to be “responsive to social justice, environmental protection and human rights.”[9]  A new page in UN history is currently being written as Ban Ki-Moon is poised to take his place as the new Secretary General of the organization on January 2, 2007.  In order to assure that the RP2 doctrine is adhered to there must be strong and dynamic leadership willing to take a step forward, to take the chance and convince other world leaders that action must be taken.  The chance for significant reform in UN strategy regarding sovereignty and human rights has arrived.

The first question that must be answered in order to create change within the United Nations is, what types of activities call for intervention?  The General Assembly and Security Council have already answered this question on numerous occasions through various resolutions and actions taken previously (though often too late) in cases such as Rwanda.  During the World Summit in September 2005, the General Assembly reaffirmed the need to protect against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.  A large part of the responsibility lies in determining that the conditions that exist require intervention.  In 2004 a recommendation from the UN endorsed the “emerging norm” of RP2 from activities that included “genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing or serious violations of international humanitarian law which sovereign Governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent.”[10]  In cases where a sovereign Government fails to provide protection, a multi-national coalition must step forward to ensure that the indicators for intervention exist and either use historical precedents for intervention or be willing to create new precedents in order to mainstream the concept of RP2.

The next step requires members of the international community must create a scale of what forms of intervention are appropriate, according to the needs of those affected as well as the severity of the humanitarian issues being addressed.  What should the spectrum of intervention look like in order to ensure that steps taken are equitable and just?  Gidon Gottleib spoke of a Three Pillared Approach with an additional pillar of “prudence and pragmatism.” [11]   Human Rights Watch also proposes a Four Pronged Approach, though it must be noted that neither system defines exactly what should be accomplished within the spectrum[12].  An effective spectrum allows for graduated intervention to various humanitarian issues, including violations of human rights, with a full range of options to respond in a timely manner.  Each option of response can essentially be connected to the others and are likely most effective when used in various combinations.  Although all attempts must be made to intervene collectively there are situations in which one state may hold greater influence over another, even when combining their efforts with other states.[13]  Because of the moral duty to respond to humanitarian crises it is vital that the United Nations begin to work toward the normalization of certain actions, such as providing protection to targeted ethnic groups, in cases where intervention is appropriate.

Action requires, above all else, knowledge.  In order to intervene the international community must understand to the fullest extent the context in which the situations exist.  At one end of the spectrum there is no need for intervention.  Either no need exists or a state or group requests no aid be provided.  In some cases, such as natural disasters, a need for humanitarian assistance appears as the first sign that a state is unable to care for those within its borders.  In cases such as these humanitarian aid should be offered freely and without strings, as shelter, medical care and food is needed to preserve life.  There are cases in which state or group violence begins to appear.  Once an acknowledgement that a need for intervention exists, either through the direct request of a state, an involved party or concerned third party, diplomatic attempts to resolve the issues must be the first step.   Diplomatic actions can range from the start of dialogues between concerned parties; the arrangement of economic or political incentives, symbolic acts such as UN resolutions and if needed the exertion of influence by strongly connected allies (as in the case of the United States and Israel.)  Diplomacy is closely related to the humanitarian measures mentioned above – which can occur at the same time that diplomacy is attempted.  Humanitarian acts consist of, once again, symbolic acts but largely include attempting to meet the basic human needs of food, shelter, clothing, health care and the guarantee of security through missions involving peacekeepers.

However, action may require more intense work such as legal penalties that include sanctions[14] and tribunals or trials for those involved in criminal activities such as ethnic cleansing or other types of massacre.   As acts of violence increase and atrocities become a norm the need for UN Peacekeeping Missions becomes apparent.  If violence remains unresolved at the end of a mandate for peacekeeping then, and only after sincere and open consideration can the United Nations and the world intervene with strict military action to restore peace and security.  At the end of the spectrum, once hostilities have ceased and life has returned to relative normality, are legal actions for crimes against humanity.

None of these changes can be effective or even take place without strong leadership willing to provide clear direction for the international community.  Countries such as the United States must work with agents of global governance and must be willing to acknowledge the shortcomings within its own organizational hierarchy in order to work toward change.  The unilateral approach of the United States, in recent years, has increased animosity toward the nation’s great political power.[15]  If the United States were to take a more innovative approach and start working closely with the United Nations, be willing to acknowledge that mistakes have been made and work toward a more unified world by participating in vital environmental and social justice treaties, other nations would likely find it easier to approach the United States, or other international or trans-national organizations for assistance in meeting and exceeding human rights standards in order to fulfill their sovereign obligations.  And in cases where states were unwilling to meet their obligations the world could be more unified and willing to intervene when failure occurs.

Works Cited

Barash, David, P., Approaches to Peace, Oxford University Press, Oxford – New York, 2000.

Carter, Jimmy, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006.

Gottleib, Gidon, Nation Against State: A New Approach to Ethnic Conflicts and the Decline of Sovereignty, Council on Foreign Relations Press, New York, 1993.

Hayden, Patrick, The Philosophy of Human Rights, Paragon House, Saint Paul, 2001.

Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/editorials

___________.  “US Should Mark 5 Year Anniversary of Guantanamo…by Closing its Doors.”

___________.  “How to Put UN Rights Council Back on Track.”

UN Security Council, Resolution 1674, 2006.

United Nations High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, 2004.

[1] Havel, Vaclav, “The Politics of Responsibility,” Reprinted in Approaches to Peace, Edited by David P. Barash, Oxford University Press, Oxford – New York, 2000, pg. 260.

[2] Goodhart, Michael, Human Rights: Politics and Practice, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, pg.371.

[3] Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples, 1976.  Because the issue of state sovereignty is highly complex this paper takes the stance that the concept of sovereignty must quickly evolve. There must be an understanding that many nations do take great care to ensure that the populations within its borders are not subject to unjust policies – but that more can be done to enhance the promotion of human rights worldwide.  It must also be mentioned that because the Universal Declaration is simply a resolution, it is not legally binding.

[4] International Crisis Group, “The Responsibility to Protect: A Primer,” http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=1174&l=1, Accessed 7 Jan 2007.  According to the primer there are three specific responsibilities inherent in the Responsibility to Protect.  First, there is a responsibility to protect, which includes addressing the cause of the conflict. Next, there is the responsibility to react that involves a response with “appropriate and coercive measures.” Finally, there is the responsibility to rebuild the communities involved with a focus on, once again, “addressing the causes of harm.”

[5] Barash, David, P., “Human Rights,” Reprinted in Approaches to Peace, Oxford University Press, Oxford – New York, 2000, pg. 155.

[6] Ibid, pg. 153.

[7] Hayden, Patrick, “Introduction to Part Two: Contemporary Issues,” The Philosophy of Human Rights, Paragon House, Saint Paul, 2001, pg. 369.

[8] UN Security Council, Resolution 1674, April 28, 2006.  This resolution confirmed that the UN Security Council would uphold the responsibility to act when a state could not fulfill its responsibilities to populations within its borders from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.  The Security Council has yet to completely fulfill their commitment to the concept of RP2.

[9] Falk, Richard, On Humane Governance¸ Reprinted in Approaches to Peace, Edited by David P. Barash, Oxford University Press, Oxford – New York, 2000, pg. 242.

[10] United Nations High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, 2004, http://www.un.org/ Accessed 7 Jan 2007.

[11] Gottleib, Gidon, Nation Against State: A New Approach to Ethnic Conflicts and the Decline of Sovereignty, Council on Foreign Relations Press, New York, 1993, pg. 122-123.  Gottleib’s Three-Pillared Approach focuses on “diplomacy, enforcement and humanitarian aid” while “carefully preserving” a fourth pillar, which is “pragmatism.”

[12] Human Rights Watch, Editorials from November 2006 – “How to Put UN Rights Council Back on Track,” Peggy Hicks, Originally published in The Forward 3 Nov 2006, The Human Rights Council proposes a “multi-level system” to address each situation differently in a flexible manner and with a “full range of options to respond to human rights situations.”  Yet, the council fails to go into specific details. http://www.hrw.org/doc/?t=editorials, accessed 7 Jan 2007.

[13] Carter, Jimmy, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006, pg. 132.  The United States holds a great deal of influence over Israel.  Carter illustrates one such situation in which the United States threatened to withhold a large number of fiscal aid packages in response to housing settlement activity in occupied territories.  This move prompted Israel to discontinue the expansions, at least temporarily.

[14] Smith, Michael, J., “Humanitarian Intervention: An Overview of the Ethical Issues,” The Philosophy of Human Rights, Edited by Patrick Hayden, Paragon House, Saint Paul, 2001, pg. 491. Sanctions proved to be very effective in the case of ending apartheid in South Africa.

[15] Human Rights Watch, “US Should Mark 5 Year Anniversary of Guantanamo…by Closing its Doors.” The United States is considered to be by many organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, in violation of many human rights by its use of the death penalty and the recent uncovering of poor treatment of detainees held in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan.  http://www.hrw.org/editorials. Accessed 7 Jan 2007.


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