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.
Historians 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.