The debate about human protection hinges on the issue of whether a state’s right to be secure and free from external interference should be conditional on its fulfilment of certain responsibilities to its citizens, most obviously protection from mass violence. We might plot various responses to this question along two axes – the first relating to our conception of whether moral progress is possible in world politics (more optimistic or more pessimistic) and the other relating to which actors should be privileged (states or individuals). The first axis refers to the way we understand the potentiality and limits of world politics. Some approaches are prefaced on an optimistic vision that dialogue between communities makes moral consensus and shared purposes possible (Linklater 1998). The alternative is a fatalistic or ‘tragic’ conception of world politics based on the view that the world is composed of culturally distinct units with different values that pursue their own, distinct goals with limited possibility for cooperation (Lebow 2003). This account is sceptical of progress, doubts that morality does (or should) play a role in world affairs, and predicts that efforts to spread moral values will prove costly and counterproductive. The second axis relates to what sort of actor should be privileged – states or individuals. It is common for theories of International Relations to privilege the state on the grounds that it is the principal actor in world affairs, the main source of order, and the bearer of international rights and responsibilities. An alternative perspective privileges individuals as the only irreducible actor. Individuals cannot be means to an end; they must be seen as ends in themselves. From these two axes, we derive four ethical positions.
1. Optimistic and state-centred: a rule-governed international society
This accepts that progress in international affairs is possible, but that in a world characterised by radical difference the basis for progress should be voluntary cooperation between states in a rule-governed international society of states. Perspectives housed in this quadrant hold that the common good is best served by privileging the rules of co-existence found in the UN charter. This focuses especially on the legal ban on the use force and ensuring that the two exceptions to that ban are not abused (Articles 42 and 51). According to this view, allowing states a free hand to promote human protection in other states would create disorder by allowing wars to protect and impose one state’s values on others. Disorder would weaken the international system, undermine human development, and make cooperation between states more difficult. This view dovetails with the commonly held legal view that there is a general prohibition on interference except when authorised by the UN Security Council. This account is unnecessarily pessimistic about the capacity of states to reach consensus about shared moral principles. There is relatively little evidence to suggest that the incremental expansion of collective action into new areas of peace and security, such as human protection, has given rise to greater disorder. This account also overlooks the flexibility built into the Security Council to redefine its role in international peace and security to take account of changing conditions, should it decide to do so.
2. Tragic and state-centred: the realities of life in an international state of nature
This perspective espouses a communitarian view about the diversity of communities and the relativity of values, but rejects even basic claims about the capacity of states to agree meaningful rules of co-existence, let alone substantive rules. This account suggests that norms and rules are irrelevant as causes of behaviour when set against material factors such as economic gain, territory and the national interest. To paraphrase a prominent realist, Edward Hallett Carr, international interference for ‘protection’ would in fact be nothing other than the interests and preferences of the powerful masquerading as universal morality. This account counsels against humanitarian activism. It doubts the capacity of states to be altruistic and thus sees all state action as exercises in the self-interested use of power that undermines world order. Few, if any, states openly subscribe to this approach. Accepting that states tend to do only what they perceive to be in their interests does not get us very far analytically. To understand why states act in certain ways we need to understand variation in the way that states (even similar states) construct their interests and this requires a deeper understanding of the factors that guide national decision-making.
3. Optimistic and individual-centred: defending humanity and our common values
The third perspective is the one most positively disposed to advancing human protection. It is usually associated with liberalism and a broader cosmopolitan view that all humans belong to a single world community. It holds that states have positive duties to protect foreigners from tyranny as well as a right to do so since human rights are universal rights that ought to be defended everywhere. According to theorists in this tradition, states have agreed certain minimum standards of behaviour. As such, action across borders to support human protection is not about imposing the will of a few powerful states but about protecting and enforcing basic values and/or the collective will of international society. While this view is on strong ground when it comes to the theoretical right of the UN Security Council to mandate enforcement action, when it comes to a more generalised right to intervention the theory is contradicted by strong bodies of legal thought and state practice that counsel against it. Not surprisingly, therefore, liberal cosmopolitans tend to be divided on whether there is such a general right of intervention outside the boundaries of existing international law.
4. Tragic and people-centred: the distinctiveness of humanitarian action
These accounts tend to privilege traditional forms of humanitarian assistance and exhibit deep scepticism about military intervention on the grounds that it tends to make situations worse and reinforces the militarist ideals that are among the chief underlying causes of humanitarian crises in the first place. Precisely because of this scepticism, however, these accounts help to widen our understanding of the tools that might be used to protect populations. In exposing some of the intrinsic limitations of forcible action to promote human protection, these approaches emphasise that interventions are selective, partial and never solely humanitarian. That said, critics question how suffering can be alleviated let alone prevented without taking a political stance and so there are real limits to the physical protection that can be afforded by humanitarian action alone. This ‘individual-centred’ approach is vulnerable to many of the criticisms levelled against the ‘tragic’ conception. Notably, its prescriptions often fall well short of what is needed to protect vulnerable populations.