Monday, January 02, 2017

Life, Liberty and Security (Tim)

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person
(Human Rights Series Part 2; Part 1 - Free Speech

This is article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think we can all agree that the world is failing at quite spectacularly at this one. According to the ICRC, Syria now has 6.3 million people internally displaced, 5 million living in besieged cities and 4.8 million refugees who have fled the country. As of April the UN estimated the death toll to be at least 400,000.  God knows how many more have died since the Syrian and Russian bombing campaigns accelerated, and the siege of Aleppo started.

When the genocide happened in Rwanda, we all vowed that the world would never let such a thing happen again, and yet we’re watching it right now in Syria. So what went wrong? It’s pretty obvious that the world’s global policeman, in the shape of America, has blown all his goodwill, lost his authority and just flat-out spread himself too thin. Not only that, but by so transparently seeking self-interest in Iraq and other conflicts, Uncle Sam has set a dangerous precedent. Enter Russia and Iran as the self-interested saviours of the Syrian regime, and agents of genocide.

In ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, Steven Pinker revived Thomas Hobbes’ idea of keeping the peace by means of a ‘monopoly on the legitimate use of force’.  The Wild West illustrates the principle perfectly. The American West was a great deal more violent and dangerous 100 years ago than it is now because everyone was armed, and everyone had the right to defend himself, which set the scene for vigilantism and unbreakable cycles of revenge killing. Nowadays, the police generally reserve a monopoly on violence, and so the average citizen is much safer.

To me there is a clear analogy between this and one of the core principles of the United Nations – that no single nation has the right to take unilateral action against any other. Clearly, the UN isn’t keeping the peace as well as it could, and the veto power of the Security Council member states is one of the main reasons why. And yet, in cases where the member states can agree, the UN has had a good deal of success. There have been 71 UN Peacekeeping missions since 1948, with 16 currently in progress. Perhaps the most successful United Nations military intervention thus far was protecting South Korea from invasion by the North in 1953. I wouldn’t be sitting so comfortably in Seoul right now if that hadn’t happened.

So, to draw these threads together, my wish is that individual states would have less power and that the UN would have more power to intervene in conflict situations. To me, giving a disinterested body like the UN a monopoly on the legitimate use of force is only way of ensuring that peacekeeping is exactly that, and not politically motivated like the American action in Iraq, or the Russian involvement in Syria. 

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