Archived February 09, 2015 - March 12, 2015

Is the International Community Abandoning the Fight Against Impunity?

In recent years the world has seen no respite in conflict where civilians are being particularly targeted with increased brutality. Reports of the devastation wrought by conflict and terror seem to overtake one another with civilian casualties soaring in Syria, Central African Republic, Gaza, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, Ukraine, and more.

Especially worrying is that, increasingly, impunity reigns for the perpetrators of these atrocities, and political will and cooperation in upholding the interests of justice seem to have faltered: African governments have vowed to shield sitting heads of state from judicial oversight, and in Guatemala, despite huge efforts by victims and civil society, political forces continue to derail the trial of a former dictator accused of genocide. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council failed to refer the violence in Syria to the ICC, and the ICC Chief Prosecutor, citing a UN Security Council stalemate that can “only embolden perpetrators”, announced the suspension of the Court’s investigation of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

These developments have recently prompted ICTJ President David Tolbert to sound a warning that the international community is backsliding on its obligations to protect human rights. To continue this conversation, in this ICTJ Online Debate we ask: Is the international community abandoning the fight against impunity?

Need to catch up? View Opening Remarks

Is History Still on the Side of Human Rights?

Michael Ignatieff
Professor and Human Rights Scholar

The crisis of faith over impunity, I am trying to argue, is really a crisis of faith about whether history is still on the side of human rights, transitional and international justice.

Reflecting on this debate, I am struck by one fact: it’s really been about what time perspective to use when thinking about whether we are making progress or losing ground in the battle against impunity. The High Commissioner for Human Rights takes a “long-term view.” He has to. A short-term view is pretty depressing. From Syria to Libya, from Nigeria to Ukraine, not an hour goes by without some human being enduring unmerited suffering and the perpetrator escaping judgment, except, just possibly, in the dark heart of his own conscience. That is the reality, and in the face of it, the one luxury we can’t afford is to allow ourselves to get depressed. Taking the long view is a key element in the cussed persistence necessary for human rights work. On this, the High Commissioner and I are at one.

What the debate shows, I think, is how important the long view has been in sustaining human rights activism in the face of the unremitting grimness of much human rights reality around the world. Those who do human rights work, in the UN system, the NGO archipelago, the foreign offices of states, or as social media activists keep their courage up, in the face of setbacks and disappointments, by believing that their work contributes, long-term, to a story of progress.

Each one of us will tell this story in a different way, with different starting points and different moments of inspiration.

For religious people, and there are many among us whose human rights work is motivated by sacred belief, the story begins with the injunctions of faith, especially the duty, commanded in all religions, to care for the unfortunate and to speak up against injustice. These activists battle for human rights because they believe a religious story, assisting their God to realize his or her purposes on earth. This story keeps them sturdy in the face of day by day disappointments, though they must carry the metaphysical question with them of why their God arranges so much suffering in the world. But the sturdiest among them have answers to this question, and their answers always turn on the idea that eventually history will be redemptive.

For others of a more secular disposition, the story they serve starts with secular heroes, the men and women of the European 18th century who began the revolt against human cruelty. This took many forms, but the one that truly starts the human rights story was the campaign against slavery and the slave trade, launched by William Wilberforce and a tiny band of Evangelical Christians in England in 1787. This campaign marks for many 21st century human rights activists the beginning of the historical narrative into which they fit their daily struggles. “Am I not a man and a brother?”—the anti-slavery campaign’s slogan—defines to this day the ultimate value that the battle for human rights and against impunity seeks to defend.

It is worth recalling, even in a schematic way, the chapters in the story that follow the successful abolition of the North Atlantic slave trade by 1834. The story of progress would include the codification of the laws of war and the emergence of the Red Cross in the second half of the 19th century, and in the early 20th century, the creation of the League of Nations and the Kellogg Briand Pact to abolish war as a policy of states. This tide of humanitarian universalism sometimes rose, sometimes receded, and sometimes the humanitarian conscience proved helpless as civilization slid into catastrophe, first between 1914 and 1918, and then between 1939 and 1945. But surely one of history’s lessons is that moral catastrophes are never definitive, never final or irrevocable. In fact disaster creates moral opportunity. It was the very horror of global war and genocide that made possible the seven foundational years that followed from 1945 to 1952, years that witnessed the creation of the UN and the UN Charter, the Nuremberg trials, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Genocide Convention, the Geneva Conventions, and the Convention on Refugees. On these legal foundations arose the entire post 1945 edifice of human rights and international justice.

Cold War rivalries broke apart the brief consensus between the major powers that allowed this foundational moment after 1945, but the Cold War did not stop other developments, chiefly the collapse of the European empires and the emergence of scores of new post-colonial states. Thanks to the global revolution of national self-determination that swept Asia and Africa after 1945, human rights ceased to be the possession of the European and North American world. Human rights principles, if not, alas, the practice, anchored themselves in the constitutions of newly independent states. Colonial peoples secured the right to speak for themselves in international settings and join the elaboration and contestation of international human rights norms. We are still working our way through the consequences of this momentous historical change, in which all human beings, literally all of them, gained an equal right, in principle if not in practice, to speak and be heard about what we human beings owe to each other. Betty Murungi, who contributed to our ICTJ debate, would be one example, among many thousands, of the transformative contribution of the human rights activists from the formerly colonial peoples of the world, and if she says that the ‘first responders’ for accountability in the next generation must be the judicial systems of newly independent states themselves, then that is surely where all our efforts should be concentrated.

For Betty Murungi and me, for Aryeh Neier, the High Commissioner and all those who have contributed to this debate, the faith that enables us to survive day to day disappointments depends on the premise that we are putting in place institutions, conventions and cadres of activism that over the long haul will make moral progress irreversible.

As Aryeh Neier says, it was relatively easy to believe in progress throughout the period from the mid 1980’s to the late 1990’s. This was the epoch when Argentina, Chile and then South Africa pioneered the rituals of transitional justice, when rights organizations, like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, grew in organizational strength, campaigning ingenuity and sheer intellectual vitality, when the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals secured their first convictions and when international justice made the biggest breakthrough since Nuremberg with the creation of the ICC at the Rome Conference of 1998.

Since then, as Neier admits, the pace of the historical story has ebbed. Right now, it would be fair to say that many activists believe we have not just lost momentum in the battle to end impunity and defend human rights, but gone backwards. The war on terror has been a disaster in both of these areas. In the golden age of rights activism just passed, US leadership proved crucial, from the Carter Presidency’s ‘mainstreaming’ of human rights in foreign policy to the work of US philanthropy—from the Open Society Foundations, to Ford and MacArthur—in increasing the capacity and professionalism of human rights organizations. This immense American contribution has been stopped in its tracks by the way in which the US government responded to the apocalyptic and devastating attacks on 9/ll. When the US government and its agents sacrificed foundational moral commitments and legal principles in their campaign against Islamic terrorism, they also compromised the legitimacy of US leadership in the human rights and transitional justice field.

In addition, since 2001, the rise of authoritarian capitalist states—China and Russia in particular—has stopped in its tracks a parallel historical narrative to the one we have been tracing, namely that history was the story of the progressive spread of liberal democracy. As authoritarian capitalists concentrate control, and not just in China and Russia, but in Turkey, Egypt, Hungary, and the list goes on, our faith that further democratization, and therefore further human rights progress, are where history is headed, has been sorely tested.

The crisis of faith over impunity, I am trying to argue, is really a crisis of faith about whether history is still on the side of human rights, transitional and international justice. We can take short-term set-backs—the abandonment of the Kenyan prosecutions, the scandalous impunity of US torturers, the failure to stop the barrel-bombing of Syria—if we continue to believe that sooner or later, the caravan of history will resume its journey towards greater justice and respect for rights around the world. What the High Commissioner is essentially saying, in his fine contribution to this debate, is: keep the faith. Keep the faith in our capacity to recover from set backs and continue the long struggle to end impunity and strengthen human rights.

I want to keep the faith, and I want to believe that indeed history is a story of moral progress, and as such a source of inspiration and renewal of faith when we face difficulty in the here and now. I am too much of a historian, however, and therefore too much of a skeptic about the idea that history is a consoling story, to be as certain as the High Commissioner that what we have achieved thus far can be continued into the future. Where we would both agree, however, is that history is not fate. We shape history with our own hands, even if its shape never turns out as we intend. It is always up to us to decide, for example, whether we bring a perpetrator to trial or let him walk free; up to us to decide whether to make a human rights report as accurate as we can, or turn it into a piece of tendentious propaganda; always up to us whether we do everything we can to defend human rights victims or leave them to their fate. This is how we make history in this field that we have all chosen, and whether we believe that history is on our side, as the High Commissioner does or whether we believe, as I do, that really we have no idea, we both agree about what kind of history we wished we could serve and we both agree about what we have to do to make our world a less brutal and less unjust place.

Michael Ignatieff teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School and was a member of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

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