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.
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.
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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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