One of the positive outcomes from the United Nations
Summit in September 2005 was an agreement on Responsibility to
Protect (R2P), which commits the UN to taking action to protect
people from such crimes as ethnic cleansing and genocide.
This establishes the principle that governments have a duty to
protect their citizens' lives and rights, and if they fail to
do so, or indeed if a government is actually committing those
crimes, it loses its legitimacy and that the community of nations
will take on that protection role even if it means infringing
the sovereignty of the state.
This is an important and historic step, a change
to the concept of sovereignty that can be traced back to the Peace
of Westphalia in 1648. No-one who cares about humanity can mourn
the demise of the idea that regimes can do exactly as they please
with those who lie in their power, but on the other hand, both
the environment and the way in which R2P will be worked out needs
close inspection and modification.
The problem is that R2P can be seen as giving
legitimacy to the disastrous kind of intervention which Bush and
Blair led us into in Iraq. Invasions are not a practical answer;
the challenge is to apply the brakes on regimes that are setting
off down the slippery slope that leads to widespread human rights
abuses and genocide. We must act early and non-violently, because
to act late and violently can make the situation worse. The summit
expresses this challenge with the words: "We also intend
to commit ourselves, as necessary and appropriate, to help states
build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war
crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assist
those which are under stress before crises and
conflicts break out."
How can this aspiration be addressed? We can trace
the development from authoritarian tendencies, through repression
of political opposition with arbitrary imprisonment, disappearances
and torture, to ethnic cleansing and genocidal warfare. It is
clear therefore that the international community needs to be able
to identify states which are embarking on that course, and to
find, through the UN, ways to bring pressure that will persuade
them that repression is bad for business.
First, we need to identify the people most at
risk of committing ever worse human rights abuses. There is no
lack of data on this - the shelves of the UN are groaning with
reports on governmental performance in many areas, including that
of human rights. The trouble with reports is that they are rarely
read except by experts and professionals, so the information is
in effect hidden from public consciousness. To overcome this problem,
it is possible to codify the report findings, and use those figures
to create a ranking system which will express the human rights
performance of all governments at a glance. This has been worked
out in several examples, notably in the Observer Index of Human
Rights in the 1990s.
This Index of Human Rights will give the international
community, and more importantly the new UN Human Rights Council,
early warning of states most at risk of creating an R2P crisis
in the future. As a result, the UN will be able to pay attention
to those states, offering both carrot and stick to help them clean
up their acts.
This programme will meet with difficulty in the
form of political resistance from abusive and potentially abusive
regimes, but the alternative - a continuing free-for-all in human
rights abuses, punctuated by intermittent Iraq-style interventions,
would be much more difficult.
Appendix - advantages of the Index of Human Rights
The effects of such an Index would be:
1. A general tendency towards improved human rights performance.
Governments, even tyrannical ones, are sensitive to public opinion,
as evidenced by the success of Amnesty International's letter
writing campaigns over individual cases. There will be a natural
desire to rate more highly on the scale.
2. All parties know where they stand. At present, tyrants are
dealt with in an arbitrary and ad hoc way. The demonisation of
a particular tyrant (prior to waging war) will be less easy to
do if everyone knows that he is only, say, 6th from the bottom
on the Index.
3. Governments will doubtless appeal against their ratings. The
UN can send in inspectors to review the conditions in the country.
Regimes will tend to release prisoners and improve other conditions
prior to the appeals inspection.
4. Some governments may accept advice and assistance in improving
their human rights performance, and hence their position on the
5. Finally, when the Index is established, it can be used to bring
specific legal action and targeted sanctions to bear on the very
16 Sept 2005