Wars of the last century have left millions of victims, many lessons and an international new order that has not stopped evolving. Among others, two basic principles have sustained this world order. The first is that a sovereign state does not become involved in the internal affairs of another sovereign country, also known as “principle of nonintervention.” In this sense, many countries have embraced the idea and maintain a long tradition of militancy in favor of non-interventionism that prestige their diplomatic history.
The second principle also directly involves States: the obligation to recognize, respect and guarantee human rights, as reflected in the documents that followed the historic Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, at the end of the Second World War. This indirectly implies that States, whoever they may be should safeguard the essential rights of every individual. However, the whole world has verified that what at first glance are two confluent principles in the intention to make a state of things more just for humanity, pose in practice a paradox complicated to solve.
When addressing historical human rights catastrophes such as the cases of Rwanda, Bosnia or Somalia, to mention only those which filled television screens with horror and many black memories in the history of human race still linger, the question remains: Are there sovereign limits to be respected before a State that violates human rights of its own inhabitants, at any point to be crossed?
If there are or should be, what should be those limits to sovereignty and how far should they be valid when a State manifestly fails to guarantee the human rights of its population, by not preventing organized groups of different nature or their Structures commit, induce or allow atrocious and mass crimes? But at the same time, do States not create the risk that the indisputable cause of the defense of Human Rights will become a crude excuse for some countries to occupy and to reissue violations of various kinds?
Sovereignty and war
Not that long ago, similar cases exploded exposing the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned into a violent military intervention of some powers and their allies to generate torture sessions in the Abu Graib prison as justified method to reach the target of protection of rights of populations.
Talking about human rights, from the 1948 International Human Rights Convention that accompanied the birth of the UN, it was established that it is the States that are responsible for guaranteeing those rights, not a general court to intervene, but only to give recommendations. That doctrine assumes – at the same time – that the same States are generally the main causes that people cannot exercise their rights, either by action or omission. Therefore, conventions and pacts on rights are tools to protect people, mainly from their own States, even though they have formally assumed the commitment to comply freely with those agreements.
These notions support the United Nations Charter itself and are also present in specific conventions such as the Security Council, UNICEF and the General Assembly. So far, it could be said that there is little done to innovate, while biological, chemical and physical weapons evolve. Many states demand for a new order in which this can be compelling for states to be forced to respect their citizens, but many fear that will be the end of the concept of sovereignty.
But it happens that the same international order that seeks to ensure peace and consensus was based on another ideal, embodied in the same letter: that international relations must avoid the use of force between States, and the sovereignty of each is an inside discussion rather than other state’s affairs. In other words, each will be determined by their own government and laws, and all will assume the principle of “no intervention”.
How, then, is the sovereignty of a State an obligation to guarantee the exercise of the human rights of its population?
Flagrant human rights violations have become a part of sovereign states’ talk, increasingly unmanageable by the struggle of civil society organizations and the multiplier power of the mass media and have consequently sharpened this tension markedly in the last two decades. Ten years ago, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan openly posited to the world that although the use of force should always be a “last resort” among sovereign states, in the face of mass killings intervention was an option which could not be renounced.
Which causes could one defer in respect of one principle to ensure the other?
The debate advanced, matured and shined for a new concept at the 2005 World Summit: Responsibility to Protect. The name was taken from the report prepared in 2001 by the International Commission on State Intervention and Sovereignty. The focus was on victims of human rights violations. And most interestingly, without banishing the concept of sovereignty.
In 2009, current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon translates the new approach with simplicity and the positive objective: sovereignty, rather than as a power, must be assumed as a major responsibility to humanity. If sovereignty resides in peoples and states exercise it in their name, the State as an entity cannot do it properly without respecting the human rights of those same people to whom they owe the power to.
Sovereignty as the responsibility of States to guarantee the human rights of their inhabitants is a must. There are no longer limits for dubious security reasons. No iron mask of massacres and repressions, but quite the contrary. Responsibility shared by all States to prevent violations, to react together and to act with the potential victims in mind: more than 200 million human beings died in wars, massacres and genocides in the 20th century. And nine out of ten were civilians.
The Commission pretends to be different from the term “humanitarian intervention”, thought as the “right” of the States to act coercively on others with the intention of preventing atrocities against the population. It does not contemplate what one State can claim over another, but rather part of a burden, a responsibility to protect each one to its own population and rest to assist it to achieve it, so that coercion is only possible in Circumstances Violations of human rights.
Historically, many international sanctions have ended up punishing the populations themselves and strengthened governments that justified abuses and repression, precisely in the name of sovereignty. The Commission proposes to avoid this by associating the concept of sovereign state with that of respect for human rights and surpassing, as doctrine, the resources of the classic military or humanitarian interventions.
But the international community, when it comes to the facts, will probably face needs. One, to have institutionally – from the UN and regional organizations – efficient tools for early warning of serious violations of human rights. Another, to have ready-made practical tools previously agreed on how to assist States and populations in need.
Sovereignty resides in peoples and can hardly be exercised when basic human rights – the right to life the first – are trampled with abuses and massacres from a shifting power.