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31.1 Does the international community have, and should it strive to acquire, a responsibility to protect people from human rights violations?

1. Is international protection a responsibility (that must be discharged) or a right (that may or may not be exercised)? Should it be a duty or right?

  • Those who emphasize that the international community already has both a responsibility and right to protect victims of genocide, argue that extending this to human rights violations is a natural next step. Further, these voices argue, this would allow the dismantling of the narrative that protection from human rights violations are merely an expression of power politics. In this sense, a responsibility to protect victims from human rights violations is seen to lead to a more humane international system.
  • On the other hand, many theorists remain sceptical. Mostly embedded in notions of sovereignty and national governance, it is argued that the contemporary international system does not allow for such responsibilities or rights. The only way in which such actions are possible is through the establishment of an international government, which, it is argued, is not a realistic aim.
  • Another reason why it may be regarded as difficult to protect human rights violations elsewhere is the idea found in pluralist international society theory. More crucially, many international relations theorists are sceptical of the notion of human rights and responsibilities to protect on more fundamental terms. They criticise the notion of human rights as serving Western hegemony in both economic terms (Marxist critical theorists) and also cultural terms (postcolonial and feminist critical theorists). These theorists therefore believe that responsibilities to protect victims from human rights violations abroad serve to legitimate the spread of Western values and norms abroad, resulting in global social inequalities. Crucially, it is claimed that such consequences may not occur intentionally, but are the result of existing global power dynamics which such structures reinforce. Critical theorists thus aim to expose these structures so that actions that serve their reinforcement can be brought into question.
  • Finally, the answer to this question may depend heavily on what form this protection takes. Particularly following the war on terror in Iraq, many have become increasingly sceptical over humanitarian interventions abroad.

2. Assuming that international protection of human rights generally is much too ambitious, what about international protection of mass killings that are not genocide (that is, aimed at destroying an ethnic, racial, religious or other group, in whole or in part)?

  • As the UNSC Resolution 2249 with regards to Syria illustrates, genocide must not always be the trigger for a call for humanitarian action. However, this does not make the discussion on whether or not international intervention is needed less controversial.
  • It is crucial to note, however, that the main counterargument to non-intervention is not usually non-engagement, but rather more patience with diplomacy.

3. Who has a right or responsibility to protect? What do you think that states' rights and responsibilities should be if the United Nations Security Council does not act to provide protection?

  • Usually it is argued that it is only legitimate to take actions against other governments if sanctioned by the United Nations. This stance has been illustrated throughout the many humanitarian interventions over the past decades (for example in the former Yugoslavia in 1994, and in Iraq in 2003 - though, of course, it remains contested to what extent human rights violations were really the root trigger for intervention in case of the latter).
  • If the UNSC does not act to provide protection, some have argued that contemporary globalization allows for a conceptualization of international responsibilities of individuals and (national and transnational) civil society. This, it is argued, could make a major positive contribution to a more just and human world.
  • Those who warn against such actions have predominantly argued that NGOs and other civil society-led actions often lack political and financial accountability.
  • The pluralist international society theory may also be problematic here.