Universal human rights and the Responsibility to Protect

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Dr Adam Henry analyses the international political commitment to the principle of 'Responsibility to Protect' and its inherent problems. 

THE QUESTION of human rights is often presented by many experts as a vexing one.

What can be done? How can justice be implemented? How can outcomes be improved? How can atrocities be prevented?

Having explored some of these questions in relation to aspects of my own work the vexing issue does not appear (at least as far as the great powers and the hegemon, the USA) to be connected to any absolute need for the moral enforcement of "universal human rights". The vexingissue is not in my view "enforcement" but elite diplomatic and political resistance to the idea that human rights require any such natural universality in their application.

Therefore, the powerful nations decide in selective ways, which reflects many concerns (perhaps even the notion of human rights under international law) but also many others including their national interests. Second, not only do powerful nation states often undermine and evade existing international law (and protect less powerful allies from scrutiny) when it suits them, they also tacitly reject (where national interest collides with human rights) the idea that there is any real legal equality amongst nations under international law. Power is after all wielded selectively in striving for certain advantages and goals and nation states have unequal and varied abilities with which to influence the international system. The politics of human rights is, therefore, another opportunity to observe the maxim posed by Thucydides.

While many applaud Responsibility to Protect (R2P)it seems reasonable to conclude that such an option in practice could only be utilised by the U.S., supported by its closest allies and/or NATO and be implemented against human rights abusers already uncooperative or hostile to Washington, or the West in general. The example of Libya certainly comes to mind. Yet no one talks anymore of humanitarian intervention in Libya today, even though the nation (and its suffering civilian population) is now in a far more catastrophic state.

If history is any guide, intervention (where, when, its timelines and focus) will be selective in its applications and do nothing (or very little) against human rights abusers with which there may be close and ongoing diplomatic and economic relationships. Although the language of R2P uses human rights and all that goes with it, the reality leaves us in much the same situation we have already known for decades, if not centuries of diplomatic history.

The manner in which human rights debates are conducted is also compromised not only by definitional disputes (for example over genocide) but also by the reality that responses to atrocities and so on are not only selective, they often quantify human suffering as something to be measured against the so-called national interest. That is, we are told that we should genuflect to international law and human rights, but to do anything in practice to our own economic or strategic detriment would be naive, therefore our diplomats and politicians must learn how the world really works.

It would be worth noting that by behaving in such ways, governments, often through their diplomats, do not adapt to how the world really works but are instead actively creating the very environment most suited to justifying selfish amoral strategies and excusing immoral outcomes. The defence of a moral principle such as human rights or equal justice when it is difficult and comes with a price is the very reason that such decisions matter, encourage change and command ethical respect. This is central to whistleblowers, numerous social justice movements and characteristic of famous figures praised for their moral courage such as Wilberforce, Gandhi, Luther KingMandela and others.

The difficulties of adopting a moral stance for most governments (in my observation) is that while the language of justice and international law is useful in certain circumstances, they often have little to no intention of ever implementing any such ethical philosophy on an absolute basis, even when they claim the opposite in public. Many are of course interested in the economic and strategic benefits of a diplomatic relationship, but this easily extends to close relations with systematic human rights abusers. In reality, the embrace of corrupt and despotic human rights abusers for selfish benefits is routine practice in diplomatic history. Here we might reflect on the multibillion-dollar arms industry, big oil, or the mining industry in the global south. We can reflect on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to see self-interest continue to trump a human catastrophe of historical proportions.

In my own work examining Australian, U.S. and British diplomacy toward Indonesia and East Timor, this attitude of self-interest over human rights is blatant. While some human rights offenders (and accessories) might rightly find themselves prosecuted and convicted, perhaps even their government overthrown by outside intervention, the likelihood of this process increases or diminishes on the basis of their diplomatic alliances, politics and economic relationships with the rich and powerful.

Questions of human rights and violence in modern history do not have (if examined closely) a convincingly glorious chronology of progress. Progress has certainly been made but many issues remain and if examined geographically by region, there are large discrepancies in human rights practices, personal freedoms, labour laws and wages, wealth, education and life expectancy. It is telling that in many of these places where all or many of these factors are the worst, in that human rights conditions are lacking, conditions exist where vast profits, low costs and other political benefits are extracted by eager multinationals and wealthy nations.

One of these philosophical issues is how many in the West view our own relationship with human rights and human rights abuses. While the liberal democracies (particularly the Anglosphere) heralded a new age of enlightenment following World War II, this would quickly be subsumed (as it is often claimed) by the Cold War. That is, but for the Cold War, human rights would have been treated differently because the necessities of opposing communism required pragmatism from the American-led West for the greater good.

This is highly debatable as the histories of the Western powers (and numerous other cultures throughout history) demonstrate a long and enduring tendency to ignore, justify and minimise their own violence, particularly in regards to strategic or economic gain, imperialism, colonialism, and war. This is evident in many national histories which are uncomfortable with words such as imperialism, colonialism, massacre, genocide, nationalism or the suffering of indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities. This trend existed before, throughout and after the Cold War, with each era offering its own excuses and methods to render human rights subservient to the national interest.

While Responsibility to Protect (R2P) envisages intervention to protect citizens from their own governments, many of those that adhere to the most righteous human rights rhetoric (such as Australia, UK, or U.S.) have great and ongoing difficulty acknowledging their own roles in historic and continuing human rights abuses domestically or internationally.

The social and political legacy of universal human rights and human rights abuses does not begin solely with World War II and its aftermath, so we should be digging deeper into the historical contexts to seek the "blind spots" we either fail to see or choose to ignore.

With each of us doing so (in our own ways and areas of interest), collaborating and sharing unique perspectives on these blind spots, perhaps we can forge the small beginning of a new and equal dialogue of shared respect, justice and accountability for the past and present?

Dr Adam Hughes Henry is a visiting fellow at the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. This article originally appeared on the Human Rights Consortium’s blog and is republished with permission. You can read more from Adam Henry on his website

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