Much of the current framework for the multilateral protection of human rights can be traced back to the 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, the most serious challenge for human rights advocates seemed to be finding a way for international actors to intervene when ethnic violence within a state led to mass atrocities. Against a background of the dominance of the Western liberal democratic powers in international politics, the pressing questions were about political will and the legitimacy and mechanisms of international action. The solutions that emerged were the doctrine of a “responsibility to protect”, which gave a license for international action on internal atrocities, and the rise of international criminal justice, centred on the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Two decades on, much has changed. We can observe a series of interconnected factors. First, there is a general recognition that military intervention is simply harder than was thought – that it is difficult to impose a rights-respecting political settlement through the use of military force, and that unintended consequences are always likely to result. Afghanistan was a salutary lesson in this respect.
Second, in many ways we are now more likely to see intervention as part of the problem in conflict situations, rather than as a solution. It is notable that Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008 was presented as an exercise in the responsibility to protect – albeit the protection of fellow ethnic nationals rather than a more disinterested vision of humanity. In conflicts like Syria, Libya and Yemen, the involvement of outside powers has been an escalating factor that leads to further civilian suffering and makes the fighting harder to stop.
Third, the rise of new or resurgent illiberal powers has changed the global balance of power. The United States is more sceptical about the desirability or efficacy of using force overseas, while countries like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran are more assertive both militarily and within the multilateral system. This has led to a series of proxy wars, and it has made it harder to secure any action in the Security Council to deal with some of the most devastating wars in today’s world. In conflicts like Syria, countries that do not share any liberal political vision often have the greatest external influence over the terms on which the conflict ends. We have also seen a campaign within the United Nations by China and Russia to cut back on human rights posts and scale back human rights commitments in the mandates of peacekeeping missions.
The result of all these trends is that there are real trade-offs to be made between many of the liberal goals of conflict resolution, notably peace, human rights and justice. Liberal states like to say that these values are mutually supportive – that a durable peace requires justice and a political settlement that respects human rights. In an ideal world, this seems true – but in a competitive world where the liberal powers are not able to dictate the settlement of conflicts, an element of triage – setting priorities and deferring other goals – is unavoidable. It has become clear that international tribunals like the ICC cannot act on their own to end conflict if the political circumstances aren’t supportive. Justice may be a necessary part of the best solution to conflicts involving mass atrocities, but it may need to be postponed in order to achieve an imperfect solution, which is preferable to no solution at all.
These trends call for a chastened and realistic view of the place that human rights can have in the multilateral security system – but it would be a serious mistake to allow human rights to be consistently side-lined. This is not only because of their intrinsic importance, but because political settlements based on oppression and injustice tend to give rise to further violence. The resurgence of ISIS (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq) came through the consistent marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni population. The conflicts in the Sahel will not be resolved unless the affected countries and their international partners give serious attention to governance as well as security.
There are still strong reasons to push for human rights to have a significant place in the multilateral security system – but their supporters will have to pursue a case-by-case approach, assessing what are the priorities and what is achievable in any given situation. They should use the leverage they have and at the same time look for opportunities to appeal to the self-interest of illiberal powers, which may in some cases be forced to acknowledge that the foundations of sustainable peace require some measure of compromise and reconciliation.