The landmark report on "The Responsibility to Protect" was published with exceptionally bad timing in December 2001. Yet the concept has proven remarkably resilient and gained rapid traction in international policy as well as in the humanitarian and scholarly communities, culminating in the adoption of the new norm by world leaders meeting at the United Nations in the autumn of 2005.
At a conference in Berkeley, Calif., on March 13-15 to discuss the operationalization of the norm ("The responsibility to protect: from principle to practice"), the point was made that the "protection" half of the formula has been around for a long time in concept and practice. The international commission that published the report was innovative, people argued, in redefining sovereignty as responsibility.
As a member of that commission and one of the principal authors of the report, I responded that even here, the commission was a norm broker more than a norm entrepreneur. We consolidated a number of disparate trends, borrowed language first developed by former U.N. official Francis Deng to help address the problem of internally displaced people in his home continent of Africa, and adapted it to the so-called challenge of humanitarian intervention in the 1990s. Rather than create a new norm, we registered and dramatized a norm shift already under way. It is the implications of acting by the standards of the new norm that are revolutionary.
The importance of sovereignty as the key organizing principle of the modern world order needed and received a strong affirmation. We took pains to emphasize that a cohesive and peaceful international system is more likely to be achieved through the cooperation of effective and legitimate states, confident of their place in the world, than in an environment of fragile, collapsed, fragmenting or generally chaotic states.
Sovereignty provides order, stability and predictability in international relations. But it also implies a dual responsibility: externally--to respect the sovereignty of other states, and internally, to respect the dignity and basic rights of all the people within the state.
Reconceptualizing sovereignty as responsibility has a threefold significance. First, it implies that the state authorities are responsible for the functions of protecting the safety and lives of citizens and promotion of their welfare. Second, it suggests that the national political authorities are responsible to the citizens internally and to the international community through the United Nations. And third, it means that the agents of states are responsible for their actions, that is to say, they are accountable for their acts of commission and omission.
This, too, is less radical a departure from established precept and practice than it appears. The authority of the state is nowhere regarded as absolute. Internally, it is constrained and regulated by constitutional power-sharing arrangements. It is shared between different levels of governmental authorities, from the local through the provincial to the national. And it is distributed among different sectors of authorities even at any one given level, such as the legislature, executive, judiciary and bureaucracy.
Consider the example of India, a powerful country that expressed strong opposition to "humanitarian intervention." The chapter on fundamental rights in its Constitution guarantees the dignity and worth of individuals essentially against the state, and empowers the judiciary to monitor and enforce state compliance. In enumerating the basic rights of Indian citizens, the framers of its Constitution were influenced from abroad by the tradition of the English rule of law (for example, in guaranteeing equality before the law and equal protection of the laws), the American Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is, the state is responsible and can be held accountable for acts of commission that violate citizens' rights.
At the same time, many of India's independence leaders also believed that liberty is an empty abstraction to the hungry; freedom is meaningful only with economic security. In the light of India's poverty, "economic rights" (for example, the right to an adequate means of livelihood) could not realistically be enshrined as a basic right enforceable in the courts; but they could be and were enshrined as ideals.
India's Constitution accordingly incorporated them as directive principles, describing them as "fundamental in the governance of the country and it shall be the duty of the state to apply these principles in making laws." Some of these are in the nature of socioeconomic rights, except that they cannot be enforced through the courts, for example the right to an adequate means of livelihood. Others are in the nature of directives to the state on the manner of exercising its legislative and executive powers, for example in regard to promoting prohibition.
When critics and political opponents criticize the government for failure to honor the directive principles, in essence they are arguing for holding the state responsible for acts of omission.
Internationally, too, in human rights covenants, U.N. practice, and state practice itself, sovereignty is understood as embracing responsibility. The Charter of the United Nations is itself an example of an international obligation voluntarily accepted by member states. On the one hand, in granting membership to the United Nations, the international community welcomes the signatory state as a responsible member of the community of nations. On the other hand, the state itself, in signing the Charter, accepts the responsibilities of membership flowing from that signature.
There is no transfer or dilution of the status of state sovereignty. But there is a necessary change in the exercise of sovereignty: from sovereignty as control to sovereignty as responsibility in both internal functions and external duties.
Put like this, "responsibility to protect" is not merely deradicalized; it is also cross-ideological, embracing liberal humanitarians and right to life conservatives. But acting on the strong convictions of liberal internationalism or right to life alike would see the international community engaged with atrocity crimes--genocide, other mass killings, ethnic cleansing, rape as a deliberate weapon of intergroup war--far more frequently than has been the case. Darfur is the current poster case of critical international action being urgently needed.
The responsibility to protect norms is a call to action on prevention, intervention and postconflict reconstruction--not the opening lines of a Socratic dialogue by diplomats.
Copyright 2007 The Daily Yomiuri
Copyright © 2007 The Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri. Source: Financial Times Information Limited - Asia Intelligence Wire.