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UN: Analysis From Washington -- Sovereignty, Globalism, Rights

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's call for the international community to intervene more often and earlier inside countries to defend human rights highlights the ways in which sovereignty, globalism, and human rights can interact, sometimes with unintended results.

Speaking at the opening of the annual UN General Assembly meeting on Monday, Annan argued that there are a growing number of individuals and groups "who need more than just words of sympathy from the international community."

Instead, he continued, "these individuals and groups need a real and sustained commitment to help end their cycles of violence and launch them on a safe passage to prosperity."

He concluded: "the inability of the international community in the case of Kosovo to reconcile...universal legitimacy and effectiveness in defense of human rights can only be viewed as a tragedy."

But what Annan and others have described as a tragedy may in fact be an inherent fact of life in the current international system, one that can be overcome less by exhortation than by a careful consideration of the ways in which an international interest in defending human rights inside the borders of other countries may sometimes prove self-defeating.

There are at least three reasons why this might be so. First, to the extent that the international community demonstrates its greater willingness to intervene on behalf of groups inside countries, these groups will certainly make that part of their calculations and may act in ways intended to draw in such international forces on their side.

Not only will that spark more such actions by minorities, but it will in many cases undermine the power of governments and thus make it more rather than less difficult for institutions to emerge within countries that can protect human rights.

Indeed, in many places around the world, the sad state of human rights reflects less the actions of a repressive state than the absence of state institutions capable of controlling the actions of groups on their territory. International intervention both as a prospect and a reality can further undermine the institutions on which the defense of rights depend.

Second, as recent history makes clear, the international community is unlikely to intervene to defend human rights everywhere. Instead, it is certain to be highly selective in what it does, intervening in weak countries where large ones have a strategic interest and not getting involved in more powerful states or those in which large countries do not have such an interest.

Such a pattern is likely to increase cynicism around the world about just what the international commitment to human rights means. And such cynicism may in turn reduce the changes that individual states will in fact act better toward their own citizens.

Instead, the governments of larger and more powerful countries will have yet another basis for calculating what they can get away with with respect to their own citizens. And the regimes in smaller countries where interventions are more likely to happen may come to see international discussion about human rights as a cover for something else.

And third, those countries that are prepared to support intervention either directly or indirectly are likely to suffer what might be called "intervention fatigue." Having gotten involved in one or more areas, their governments and even more their citizens are likely to argue that others should bear the burdens in new crises.

When no one is willing to step forward, or when the only countries willing to do so have a clear geopolitical interest in doing so, one that may be at odds not only with human rights but also the interests of other states, support for intervention in defense of human rights is likely to decline.

None of these considerations means that the international community should not seek to do more to protect human rights around the world against the actions of groups and governments who violate these rights.

Rather, they suggest that progress in this direction is likely to be both difficult and slow, and that moral appeals alone, however attractive these may be, appear unlikely by themselves to transform an international system still based, as is the United Nations itself, on the existence of sovereign and independent states.

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