Caring and Acting Beyond Borders

“How do we mobilize political will and not only get people to care but to act?” James P. Rudolph joins JiC for this post on the challenges in galvanizing support and action to prevent atrocities. For James’ other posts at JiC, see here.

Bansky art on the Israel West Bank wall (Photo: Buzzfeed)

Bansky art on the Israel West Bank wall (Photo: Buzzfeed)

Americans, like most people, have busy schedules. Our obligations are many: school, family, work. All this activity consumes most of our time and attention. So why, given all this frenetic (and often exhausting) activity, should people care about anyone beyond immediate friends and family? Why, to quote Neville Chamberlain, should we care about a “quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing?”

This question is not only a philosophical question; it is also the primary problem bedeviling human rights activists throughout the world. To put it bluntly, if we cared only about family and immediate loved ones, there would be no human rights industry. Thus, mobilizing political will is the sine qua non — the Holy Grail — of human rights activists. How, then, do we mobilize political will and not only get people to care but to act?

The consensus among human rights experts is that mobilizing political will involves four steps: knowing; caring; building confidence; and building or improving institutional processes. This final step — institutional effectiveness — is, notwithstanding the importance of the other factors, first among equals, and it is related to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “Rights Up Front” initiative, both of which exhort the international community to assist states in meeting their human rights obligations.

Knowledge is the first step in the process of getting people to care beyond what is close and familiar. Knowing about Syrians being slaughtered pulls at our heartstrings. These are real people — sons, daughters, mothers, fathers — being tortured, gassed and incinerated. Knowing about the abducted schoolgirls in Nigeria, or the terrible tit-for-tat violence in the Central African Republic, pricks our conscience. But knowing is never enough. The so-called diffusion of responsibility, in which individuals in a group assume that somebody else will take care of the problem, always threatens to undermine the utility of knowledge. Knowledge, therefore, must be coupled with concern, the second step, to truly mean anything. But how and why are people motivated to care? Given the multiplicity of religious and philosophical persuasions in the United States, an appeal to morality could work, but for a more broad-based approach, other motivating factors could and should be explored.

0_16531525_303_00An argument based on national interest, for instance, oftentimes works to get people to realize that problems in one part of the world can quickly become problems right here at home. Osama bin Laden was able to operate out of Afghanistan because it was a failed state in which human rights were nonexistent. And Mohamed Salameh, convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, was a Palestinian from the West Bank who complained about oppressive regulations and other human rights violations. People, in other words, can and usually will care when convinced that abuses or deprivations in faraway lands can indeed affect their everyday lives. The corollary to the national interest argument is the financial argument. That is to say, it is much cheaper to spend money on prevention measures than it is to deploy troops for humanitarian interventions.

The third step to mobilizing political will is building confidence. Citizens, as taxpayers, rightfully expect that whatever policy is proposed will actually make a difference. The United States has endured some difficult times in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this history feeds into a perception that “foreign adventures,” whether humanitarian or not, are best avoided. The feeling, of course, is understandable and natural, but it should not overshadow all the quiet and mostly unknown victories achieved by the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations throughout the world. Notwithstanding Syria, Darfur and the Central African Republic, there has been a decline in the number of genocides and other mass atrocity crimes due, in large part, to the upsurge of conflict prevention measures, conflict management and post-conflict peacebuilding initiatives.

Finally, political will, if and when it forms, must be channeled through effective institutions. Knowledge and concern are by themselves never enough. Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, discussing the recent Russian and Chinese vetoes of the U.N. Security Council’s referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, said: “My government applauds the vast majority of members of this Council who voted to support — and the some 64 countries who joined us in co-sponsoring — this effort to refer these atrocities to the International Criminal Court. Sadly, because of the decision by the Russian Federation to back the Syrian regime no matter what it does, the Syrian people will not see justice today. They will see crime, but not punishment.” And they will “see crime” because the U.N. Security Council, the one intergovernmental institution capable of making an appreciable difference, is deadlocked.

Thus, despite all the knowledge we have of the atrocities being committed in Syria and the concern, these things essentially mean nothing without the means of implementation. Syria will continue to abuse and brutalize its own people with near-certain impunity.

Those concerned with the sanctity of human life and the integrity of the human rights field should therefore concentrate less on gathering and disseminating information and more on reforming the institutions that carry out political will. Without institutions capable of translating outrage into concrete action, more and more states will be tempted to intervene unilaterally, which would invite the kind of anarchic self-help system the United Nations was designed to prevent. It is no coincidence that R2P emerged in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, which unfolded as the UN dithered. As originally envisioned, R2P was meant to remind states (and the international community as a whole) that they all have a role in respecting and ensuring human rights. Likewise, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s Rights Up Front initiative, adopted after the Petrie Report castigated the UN’s role during the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war, was designed principally to remedy “systemic failures” vis-a-vis the UN’s humanitarian efforts. It is, to put it simply, meant to make political will less aspirational and more concrete. Despite this, both R2P and the Rights Up Front initiative suffer from some legal infirmities.

Polish humanitarian assistance packages in Libya (Photo: Polish Embassy, Cairo)

Polish humanitarian assistance packages in Libya (Photo: Polish Embassy, Cairo)

R2P is an “emerging norm,” which means it is not unequivocally binding international law. And the Rights Up Front initiative has been confined to the Secretariat’s Office, meaning it doesn’t address the problem of a deadlocked Security Council. To be sure, it shines a spotlight on how accountability can be vitiated by the bureaucratic and Byzantine nature of the UN, but it is, let us recall, couched in hortatory terms.

Hence, despite the overall decline of war and the increased competence and sophistication of peacekeepers, the big picture on Security Council effectiveness is not altogether rosy. Witness Syria, Sudan, Ukraine and the Central African Republic. In Crimea, in particular, Russia used a twisted concept of R2P to justify aggression. The challenge of political will and effective implementation, then, is not always about adopting new norms; it is also, in the world of politics, about getting states to honor — through evenhanded and impartial enforcement — those laws already on the books. Sometimes less really is more.

“While there may be no ICC accountability today for the horrific crimes being carried out against the Syrian people,” Ms. Power noted in her speech, “there should be accountability for those members of this Council that have prevented accountability.” A fine start. But there should be, for the sake of the suffering who have turned to the international community for assistance, institutional accountability as well.

About Mark Kersten

Mark researcher, consultant and teacher based in London. His research focuses on the nexus of international criminal justice and conflict resolution. Specifically, his work examines the politics of the International Criminal Court and the effects of its interventions.
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One Response to Caring and Acting Beyond Borders

  1. Pingback: Weekly Links | Political Violence @ a Glance

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