Human Rights and Emergence

Whether a crisis merits humanitarian intervention is a question that people like Jan Egeland, formerly of the United Nations and now with the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, must ask. One understands his concern. The European Union and the United States began collaborating to institutionalize the concept that when human rights were being violated in extremis (which, normally, meant a massacre), other nations had an obligation to intervene, militarily if necessary.

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

At a recent meeting in New Delhi, Egeland outlined the new human rights dilemma. The emerging powers and human rights groups are in full agreement that the legitimacy of humanitarian work is being undermined by the West’s excessive interventions. Egeland said, “All emerging nations 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.” As a result, a vacuum is forming in the international arena whenever human rights issues come up: one group feels too weak to talk sensibly, the other feels it best left to the West.

Why are emerging countries so ornery about humanitarian relief? One theory is that the emerging nations are far more committed to the principle of non-intervention in a foreign country than they are to ending some fearsome, far-off massacre — just as many European states in the 19th century were. India certainly falls into this camp; it is extremely prickly about sovereignty and is very wary of authorizing external interventions into third countries.

A second theory is that most emerging nations are bogged by severe capacity problems. Their state structures are designed to handle domestic unrest and confrontation, and no more. Big-time international crises are generally beyond the government’s capacity. That is slowly changing as these countries augment their state systems, but it’s a long road: military interventions that require some serious firepower and economic wherewithal are still a few years off.

Another theory is that most emerging countries are quite content with the status quo of letting the United States do all the work. Even if it is enfeebled, the US is still a shoulder above everyone else; even if the intervention might be delayed or half-hearted, it’s still best left to the experts.

Many NGOS — HRW, the International Crisis Group, and so on — are intent on getting India to take up their banner, even if only partially. And India can now afford to be more generous with its human rights policy. Back when New Delhi was waging dirty wars in the Northeast and Kashmir, its relations with human rights groups were terrible. Today, relations with both regions are remarkably near-calm.

An HRW official noted that in their organization’s interactions with India today, Indian officials are admirably honest about their system’s shortfallings and not above seeking advice on how to settle internal human rights issues. But external affairs are a different matter. Yet as protecting human rights becomes standard operating procedure, India is more likely to embrace the idea of international humanitarian interventions, too.

But it could take a few decades. In the meantime, the world will stumble along with the future Bosnias and Rwandas as they come up.

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