An important new doctrine in international law is incubating: the obligation to protect. I want to approach it by indirection, by looking at the evolution of family law in recent times.
Most everyone agrees that the “family,” must be respected and protected. There has been a longstanding, almost universal disinclination to interfere when families are troubled. Up to a point, this delicacy is beneficial. Family cohesion is important economically, sociologically and psychologically. But families can also be toxic.
The Sacred ThresholdNot so long ago police in the United States would not intervene in a “domestic dispute.” A woman could be black and blue and bleeding, but the cops would respect the threshold. Even today, when a badly battered female complainant reverses her testimony, the case is generally closed. “I fell,” the woman says. It’s clearly a lie, but that’s that.
For that matter, within living memory, certain American “Christians” have said that a husband may discipline a stubborn unruly wife by beating her. As for marital rape, the term raised hoots of laughter when first introduced a couple of decades ago. Marriage, by definition, meant enforceable conjugal rights for husbands. Wives lacked the right to say, “No.”
Laws and Mores ChangeBut laws and mores have changed. When men get violent, a more supportive climate of opinion makes it easier for women register a complaint of rape or battery, and makes it harder for the police to look the other way. What’s more, honor killing, that apex of domestic horror, is no longer sanctioned in the West, although it happens. Unfortunately it is still widely countenanced in the Muslim world. In Pakistan, for example, honor killing is usually not registered as a crime by the police. Even there, however, honor killing is less predictably brushed aside as a “family matter.”
Children, too, are no longer the unconditional property of parents in many parts of the world. When children are abused or endangered, the state can step in. And yet the notion of the the sacredness of the family palisade is so strongly ingrained that many children still die, in the U.S., at least, not only because some case workers are negligent, but from misplaced delicacy in administering the law.
Impermeable No More
Nevertheless, the long centuries of malign neglect, brutalization and murder within the inviolable bounds of the family are drawing to an end. As the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said recently, while promoting his own initiative to eliminate violence against women: “Our goal is clear; to end these inexcusable crimes – whether it is the use of rape as a weapon of war, domestic violence, sex trafficking, so-called 'honour' crimes or female genital mutilation.”
Increasingly, in short, if you don’t meet the obligation to protect your own, outsiders may and will.Happily, this doctrine is being broadened to challenge the sacredness of national boundaries. A regime that neglects or brutalizes its people finds it increasingly difficult to enforce a claim of absolute sovereignty. There is less and less tolerance for granting impunity to regimes that commit genocide and other crimes against humanity within their own borders. In fact, a new movement is working hard to enshrine the Obligation to Protect in international law.
The Germ of the DoctrineIt’s hard not to believe that germ of this movement springs in some way from the shame and guilt over inaction during and after World War II. For many reasons, the Allies did not bestir themselves to stop or limit the Nazi’s slaughter of European Jews. Foisting Israel on the Arabs of Palestine was, as much as anything, an attempt to assuage a whole civilization’s guilty conscience. But the guilt festered nevertheless.
The genocidal ethnic cleansing that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia reawakened that guilty conscience and, to different degrees, stirred the U.S. and Europe to limit the slaughter. Some of those who were responsible for the mass killings have been tried in the International Criminal Court. The age of impunity was over.
Then came the genocide in Rwanda, with U.N. troops standing by, watching the killing, obedient to a mandate not to interfere. So tens of thousands of people died—but not to no purpose, in a way. Rwanda seems to have been the last straw. Not only are those responsible for egging on the killers also being tried in the ICC, the question of preventing or curtailing genocide is at last on the table for serious discussion.
The Sovereignty Stumbling BlockAside from other considerations, in Bosnia and Rwanda—and Sri Lanka, and Myanmar and Zimbabwe and Darfur, a huge impediment to action has been sovereignty. However horrible a regime’s policies toward a minority of its people, is it ever justifiable for foreign elements to cross the border and meddle in the internal affairs of that country? Until recently, the answer to that question would have been a simple negative. But the contrary momentum has been building up and the question has been reformulated: how can mass violations of human rights, anywhere, anytime, be tolerated?
The Responsibility to Protect ("RtoP" or "R2P") is a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.To put it another way, every country has an obligation to protect its citizens. If a country neglects that obligation, then steps of some sort must be available to “help” that country fulfill its responsibilities to its people.
Globalizing Human Rights
This may be seen by some as an ominous development for the nation state, which is already under siege from many forces more or less beyond its control. Human-created global warming ignores national borders. International trade minimizes the importance of national borders. Modern communications media penetrate national efforts to censure troubling information.
And now a new human rights doctrine suggests that national borders are not sacred when people are suffering. It’s important to note that proposed interventions would not be unilateral or whimsical or even merely charitable. They would have “international” stature and would only be triggered if the horrors and suffering rose to some agreed upon “threshold” indicating that the target country had massively failed to meet its “core protection responsibilities.”A good way to learn more about the R2P doctrine, its pros and cons and progress, including the fact that the United Nations General Assembly has now formally taken note of it (UNGA Resolution 308 (2009), is to visit the Responsibility to Protect website.