Humanitarianism and Human Rights - Worlds Apart? / by Simmon Li

(These thoughts are incomplete and rambly.)

A recent discussion I had in a seminar has gotten me to thinking about humanitarianism, its evolution, human rights, the role of human security and the responsibility to protect. The so-called "new humanitarianism," championed by some, can be seen, in some respects, to be blending in principles of humanitarian urgency with principles of political organization that human rights applies. The consequence, however, is that the "apolitical" nature of humanitarianism, supposedly key to its utility, is lost. It was put to me as a puzzle. If we know that humanitarian work is ideological in nature, how can it not be political? Further, if it is political in such a way, why maintain so strenuously that it isn't? I think the answer is provided by the emergence of the responsibility to protect (R2P) and its resulting discursive upheaval viz sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention. As was put to me in class, R2P represents a way in which we can manage this blending of the two sides of the coin. R2P, it is claimed, provides a rational to finally abolish the divide between human rights and humanitarian organizations. This seems, to me, to be both right and wrong. The key value of R2P, in my opinion, is the conceptual challenge it presents to understanding intervention and responsibility on the part of states, and the fundamental disruption of the concept of sovereignty which remains the only legitimated organizing principle of the international system. However the principle of Westphalian sovereignty falls short (such limits are articulated by many scholars, but particularly S. Krasner), the idea of international, responsible sovereignty steps in to fill in the gaps. It is important to note, firstly, that sovereignty remains the ultimate justification for action-that is, the ultimate goal remains the stability of the international system, and secondly, that this sovereignty is different in its international character. This character, in theory, legitimates such international action. This understanding of what R2P "does," in my opinion, sufficiently summarizes how R2P is important, but simultaneously articulates its limits. While it is true that R2P deals in the responsibilities of "prevention" and "rebuilding," those two aspects tend to be forgotten viz discussion of R2P as a legitimating tool for (imperial/liberal) intervention. Whether or not this is important, we shall see. While acknowledging the negative construction of R2P, I believe that such a characterization throws the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and misunderstands the real value of R2P's impact on the normative and ideological structures of international politics. In short, it's time to stop talking about R2P.

It is important, in my opinion, to understand, firstly, what the Responsibility to Protect paper by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty changed in the debates about these abstract concepts and, secondly, to understand how the change of those parameters of debate impact the kinds of policy that is possible. It is my contention that the value of R2P is not only in its impact viz the debate over sovereignty and intervention, but also that R2P opened the door to new policy horizons because of its impact. It is this second point where, arguably, derives its value. The two seem to me to be distinct enough to merit separate analysis, but are often seemingly elided due to their interconnectedness within the R2P documents.

(modified the debate, whee)

(Meat of the issue: R2P, for the first time since the inception of the United Nations, took seriously a longer time horizon for international security. Simultaneously, it redefined, in my opinion, international security in important ways, integrating streams of "new security" into the traditional understanding of "state" security. But debates over the doctrine quickly, and predictably, focused on the short-term consequences. This fundamental misunderstanding of R2P has been fatal, though R2P still retains value.)

(How is this related or connected at all to the humanitarianism/human rights divide? Humanitarianism and human rights organizations both also seem to differentiate themselves on this issue of time horizon. The question of politics, in my opinion, isn't one of in or out (that is, apolitical or political), but rather one of now or later. It is, in fact, the temporal dimension that constitutes the division between humanitarianism and human rights organizations. But just how important is this temporal dimension? Is "new humanitarianism" the answer? If we take R2P seriously as the bridge between humanitarianism and human rights, how does R2P's discursive impact (both in sov and security) change and shape the possible worlds of humanitarianism and human rights? Does R2P's longer-term outlook doom humanitarianism to the service of human rights?)