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Neverending nightmares: who has the power in international policy?

Late last year, North Korea grabbed headlines after government-sponsored hackers infiltrated Sony and exposed the private correspondence of its executives. The more significant news that many may have missed, however, was the symbolic and long overdue UN resolution condemning the crimes against humanity North Korean committed against its own people.

In November 2014, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn North Korea for its human rights abuses and to refer it to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution. The resolution was based on a UN report published earlier in the year that detailed widespread killings, starvation, and torture on a scale “without parallel in the contemporary world.” Yet the General Assembly lacks the power to refer North Korea to the ICC, and the ICC lacks the authority to prosecute non-member states. To make matters worse, the Security Council is not likely to refer North Korea for ICC prosecution due to explicit opposition from China and Russia.

North Korea is certainly not alone. Syria, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Burma, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Nigeria have all been mired in unspeakable violence at different times over the last six decades. It’s puzzling that in a world where we cure diseases that were considered beyond reach even ten years ago, send people to the moon, and launch space crafts into the dark corners of the universe, we cannot figure out the what kinds of institutions we need to prevent such countries from committing oppression and unspeakable harm on a large scale.

The statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang (april 2012). By J.A. de Roo. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang (april 2012). By J.A. de Roo. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

While the institutional technology to constrain the worst in the human impulses raises very different challenges than the technology to cure disease or explore outer space, experiments in democracy and the rule of law in different parts of the world have taught us a few things about how to prevent the concentration of power into the hands of a few — and how to insure a minimum of guarantees internal to states that protect individual rights.

However reliable those guarantees, for a variety of reasons they remain out of reach for large swaths of the globe. It is time to give the ICC more prosecutorial power, and create new international institutions whose main aim is to prevent massive human rights abuses and to step in when states are unable or unwilling to fulfill their most basic responsibility to their own citizens, namely the protection of physical safety and basic freedom.

Proposals such as these raise immediate questions about unjustified interference with state sovereignty, or evoke dark forebodings of a global leviathan. The first kind of skepticism is based on the assumptions that states should be the ultimate arbiter of justice on their territory and with respect to their citizens, and that they can competently thwart both internal and external threats.

This assumption has been with us since the rise of the modern state, yet it has never been warranted. Whatever power and resources enable states to protect their citizens also enables states to turn against them. Accepting the view that states are the final authority of right and wrong is tantamount to accepting, without question, whatever they choose to do to their citizens, however shocking to the moral conscience of mankind. This outdated defense of sovereign independence at all costs leaves hundreds of millions of people vulnerable to the efficacious killing machines of criminal states.

The other worry, that institutions such as the ICC could turn into a global leviathan, is worth heeding. Still, institutions such as the ICC and others whose task would be to protect the most basic level of physical security, such as a stronger policing and enforcement agency, are unlikely to turn into a global government, with the power to create zoning laws, welfare reform, or the right to holidays with pay.  Not if those of us living in different countries, with the power to authorize, define and constrain the powers of such institutions, can minimize the dangers of institutional overreach. Our knowledge of how to build good institutions is limited, but doing nothing and hoping for the best is no longer acceptable in the face of such challenges.

With the recognition that states are imperfect, incomplete political forms should come a willingness to support institutions with the power to keep states in check and make sure they do not fall below the most minimal demands of their responsibilities to their citizens. It is the only hope for ending the nightmares of countless people living under the most brutal regimes in the world, whose odds in the survival game has depended on brute luck alone. It is time to change the odds.

Featured image: UN General Assembly bldg flags by Yerpo. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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