Responsibility to Protect and the Coercive Enforcement of Human Rights
19 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2012
Date Written: March 1, 2011
The more overtly coercive dimensions of human rights enforcement have emerged front and center in contemporary debates on the appropriate response of the international community to massive human rights violations. Movement towards politically legitimating humanitarian intervention based on collective action – including the use of force – is embodied in the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” or RtoP, and associated efforts to redefine threats to international peace and security that have pushed human rights compliance onto the agenda of the UN Security Council (UNSC). This development reflects three broad trends that inform and, in turn, are informed by RtoP: (1) the broadening of interpretations of threats to international peace and security, including mass atrocities; (2) the reality of constant renegotiations of state sovereignty in matters of human rights, and the legitimate form and scope of international intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries; and (3) the increased acceptability of the use of force for a broad range of policy objectives and associated beliefs in the utility of coercive/military power.
This paper examines some of the key underlying norms that inform contemporary debate on RtoP. In the process, it also highlights some of the broader implications of a trend towards securitizing human rights. It begins by historically tracing the role of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and General Assembly (UNGA) in situating human rights within the framework of threats to international peace and security. Notwithstanding the primary responsibility of the Council in matters of international peace and security, this paper is intended to act as a corrective to a discussion which, with some notable exceptions, often underspecifies or neglects altogether the role of the UNGA in this arena.
Secondly, despite precedent within UN structures for framing massive violations of human rights as a threat to international peace and security, the more coercive dimensions of human rights enforcement has prompted significant pushback by certain groups of states previously willing to endorse the 2005 World Summit Outcome document. The paper proceeds to unpack some of these contentious dynamics by focusing on first order principles of legitimacy and jurisdiction within and outside UN structures.
Thirdly, current debate surrounding implementation has increasingly focused on RtoP as a doctrine of prevention as much as enforcement under the rubric of the ‘Three Pillar System’ devised by the UN Secretary General in his 2009 report to the UNGA: (1) the protection responsibilities of the State; (2) international assistance and capacity-building; and (3) timely and decisive response. This has raised questions regarding the relative emphasis between the pillars, particularly concerning the specific responsibilities that may be entailed for prevention and enforcement. This debate is being conducted in the context of contemporary developments that are testing the relevance of RtoP to diverse situational crises and the notable reluctance of the Security Council to apply RtoP to ongoing crisis situations. Observers, such as Nicholas Wheeler, criticized the 2005 World Summit Outcome document for failing to address two fundamental questions: what should happen if the UNSC is unable or unwilling to authorize the use of force to prevent or end a humanitarian tragedy? And second, how could better implementation of this norm save strangers in the future? Issues of legitimacy, authority, and implementation raised by these questions and explored in this paper remain of central concern. The UNSC and UNGA historical record of activity in the area of human rights enforcement provides valuable historical context to a fuller understanding of the contours of this contemporary debate.
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