Human rights and emergence

Whither humanitarian intervention is the question that people like Jan Egeland, formerly of the United Nations and now with the nongovernmental organisation Human Rights Watch, ask. One understands the concern of an activist like him. The European Union and the United States began coming together on the idea of institutionalising the concept that when human rights were being violated in extremis (normally that meant massacring was taking place) then other nations had an obligation to intervene, militarily if necessary.

But today, with the Western nations in various forms of economic turmoil and the balance of international power shifting to emerging economies like China, India, Brazil and the like, this envisaged new humanitarian world order seems to be coming apart.

As Egeland explained during a recent meeting in New Delhi, the new human rights dilemma was the following:
The emerging powers and the human rights groups were in full agreement that too many interventions that were started by the West was undermining the legitimacy of humanitarian activity. “All emerging nation agree with us that too many international initiatives over human rights are coming from the West. But they don’t see the next natural step which is more predictable initiatives by non-Western countries,”
The result was that a vacuum was starting to form in international arena when human rights issues came up. One group felt too weak to talk sensibly. The other group felt it was best left to the West.

Why are emerging countries so ornery about humanitarian relief?
One theory is that the emerging nations, not dissimilar from a 19th European state, are far more worried about diluting the principle of non-intervention in a foreign country than they are in putting an end to some fearsome massacre. Definitely, India is extremely prickly about sovereignty and is very wary of authorizing external interventions into third countires.

Two, most emerging nations have severe capacity problems. There state structures are designed to just about handle domestic unrest and confrontation. The big time international stuff is generally seen as beyond the capacity of their government. That is slowly changing because these countries are augmenting their state systems, but this is a long road. But doing military interventions that would require some serious firepower and economic wherewithal.

Third, most emerging countries are quite happy to let the traditional crisis-saver, the United States, do the work. Even if enfeebled, the US is still a shoulder above all else so even if the intervention might be delayed or half-hearted, it’s still best to leave it to the experts.

Not merely HRW, but also other groups like the International Crisis Group and so on, many NGOs are particularly attracted to the idea of getting India to take up their banner, even if partially.

When New Delhi was waging dirty wars in the Northeast and Kashmir, its relations with human rights groups were terrible. Today, both these regions are experiencing a remarkable period of near-calm. India can afford to be more generous on its human rights policy as a consequence.

As an HRW official noted, in their organisation’s interactions with India today, the Indian officals are admirably honest about their system’s shortfailings and not above seeking advice on how to settle human rights issues inside India. But the application of this overseas is a different matter. Yet if India does become increasingly comfortable with the idea of human rights as a standard operating procedure, the likelihood of its embracing humanitarian intervention will increase.

But it could take a few decades in coming. In the meantime, the world will be stumble along with the future Bosnias and Rwandas that may come up.

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