However, when such a big story breaks, it’s easy to lose focus on events happening elsewhere. Though Ukraine is enormously important, there are other events that still deserve our attention.
For example, the report issued last month by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights on North Korea stated that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.”
The report is the best version of a smoking gun that the international community will get on North Korea. We are now hearing calls, like the one from the Commission’s chairman, Michael Kirby, to act on North Korea. If ever there is a moment, this is it. The world is confronted with the “fierce urgency” of now. We cannot sit idly by. Now is the time for action.
Despite such calls, the UN, the United States, the EU, or any other unilateral or multilateral force is unlikely to action.
I don’t mean to sound cynical. It’s just the global system of nation states we have put in place, along with the rules, norms, and values we have come to accept simply won’t allow us to act. Rooted in 17th century peace agreements, our current system normally prevents one country from infringing on the domestic affairs of another country. The shackles of sovereignty bind our hands and keep us from acting in ways that might seem just.
There are exceptions to this (the United State-led 2003 invasion of Iraq being the most recent example), but most of the time those instances occur when one country’s desire to interfere with another’s affairs outweighed the risks of going against the international system. And too often, genocide is not enough of a reason for us to act. So we continue on and mourn the loss of those in places like Rwanda and Sudan.
Therefore it would seem that our international system is one that continually stands at odds with our desire to protect human rights. Such a system begs the question: are we living in the world we want or only tolerating the world we have?
Perhaps the confines of a system that is more than 350 years old have become too great. There is nothing to stop us from trying something new.
There are certainly ideas out there. Perhaps the best example is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P basically states that state sovereignty is not a given right, but only exists if a state can properly protect and provide for its own citizens. This idea and R2P have been batted about the international community and conversations that arise when discussing things like this ever since. It was even cited by the UN in 2011 in regard to its condemnation of the violence in Libya. But it has failed to lead to gain any real legitimacy or lead to creating any new, clear precedents.
It does, however, push us in a direction that forces us to reconsider the makeup of the international system. Is a network of geopolitical borders really the best way to determine how humanity interacts with itself on a global scale?
Reconsidering sovereignty is a big issue. For many outside of international politics, it’s such an intangible and unimaginable idea –changing the way the world has worked for generations is no small concept – that it gets passed by too easily. But all of us would do well to remember that, borders are nothing more than a map; they don’t diminish the humanity of those on either side. And while grouping makes governance easier, when it comes at the price one group being better off than another, it stops working.
As the world looks on to North Korea with proof of the atrocities within, yet unable to take action, I believe that it is time for the international system to start undergoing some sort of chance. It is likely to be messy, complicated, and not entirely satisfactory. It will take a lot of discussion – one that is beyond this blog post. But if human rights are something we are truly concerned about it, than we must be prepared to take on big questions and come up with complex solutions.
Until then, the inalienable rights of others will continue to be suppressed.