This week marks the 67th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
December is when we ask ourselves ‘have we done what we set out to do at the beginning of the year? What we can do now to bring our goals a little closer to being realised? And it is in December that much of the fabric of today’s human rights costume was sewn.
On the tenth of December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed what would come to represent the first instrument of the International Bill of Rights – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Decades later, against the backdrop of genocide in Rwanda and ethnic conflict in the Balkans, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty published a report pitching the existence of a ‘responsibility to protect’ human beings from atrocities such as genocide, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. In 2005, heads of state acknowledged this existence and in the ten years since this milestone the responsibility to protect has become sufficiently well-known to be abbreviated to RtoP.
But, recently it has lived more under the shadow of infamy than the glow of celebrity. Because of the terrible conflict in Syria, RtoP has been branded as representing little more than lip service to remedying “man’s inhumanity to man”. There are valid reasons why this view emerged, but equally valid reasons why it should not prevail.
An often overlooked element of RtoP is national authorities’ primary responsibility to protect their own populations from RtoP crimes. There is agreement that one way in which national authorities can fulfil this so-called “primary RtoP” is by implementing protection instruments such as the Bill of Rights. Moreover, practice over the last decade suggests that primary RtoP does not just restate earlier protection policies – it adds value to them.
RtoP has steadily grown into a tool for explaining how the basics of the Bill of Rights can be applied in practice to protect populations from atrocities. A recurrent theme is how protection of the rights to non-discrimination and freedom of expression helps prevent the specific crimes which RtoP covers. This has clarified what national authorities can do and, also, when and how they should restrict the exercise of such rights in order to prevent RtoP crimes.
One example stems from the UN Secretary-General’s 2009 report on implementing the responsibility to protect which received widespread state support. It recommended that national authorities can implement the right to non-discrimination to prevent RtoP crimes by taking steps to ensure the national judiciary is free from gender discrimination. This can help ensure that gender bias does not interfere with the prosecution of perpetrators of all forms of RtoP crimes, not least those relating to sexual violence against women.
An example of the latter can be found in one of the first cases in which the responsibility to protect was expressly cited: the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. The specifics of the situation in Kenya meant that national authorities had to place more emphasis on limiting freedom of expression. The Kenyan authorities therefore banned live media broadcasts during the violence in order to prevent political broadcasts from featuring hate speech which could incite RtoP crimes.
As we commemorate sixty-seven years since the seminal instrument of the Bill of Rights was passed, it is tempting to declare the atrocities in Syria and attacks in Paris as signs that we should commiserate the fall of RtoP. But, as human rights pioneer Martin Luther King said, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Standpoints on the worth of a doctrine designed to protect mankind should be similarly measured.
These are tough times for human rights and RtoP is no exception. RtoP does not yet signify a guarantee of universal fulfillment of the Bill of Rights, but that does not mean that it is without value. RtoP is a useful addition to the existing human rights framework because it helps policymakers understand how (willing) national authorities can best use the Bill of Rights to prevent RtoP crimes. Accordingly, RtoP is neither the pantomime of 2015 nor a new production for 2016. It is, at present, a reinterpretation of a classic drama (“The Bill of Rights”) still very much in the process of rehearsal.
Dr Halbert is a Doctorate of Philosophy in Public International Law from Swansea University.