The Need to Protect

By Raymond, Gregory | Harvard International Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Need to Protect


Raymond, Gregory, Harvard International Review


In a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1968, Arthur Leff, a Yale law professor, condemned what he saw as a feeble international response to horrific events during the Nigerian Civil War. "Forget all the blather about international law, sovereignty and self-determination, all that abstract garbage. Babies are dying," he growled.

Professor Jentleson's essay ("A Responsibility to Protect," Winter 2007) on the international community's responsibility to protect vulnerable populations from human rights violations reminds us that state sovereignty remains as formidable a barrier to humanitarian intervention as it was four decades ago. Despite evidence that sovereignty has been gradually eroding as the processes of globalization widen and deepen worldwide interconnectedness, Jentleson laments that national leaders continue to accept the Westphalian principle that states hold exclusive jurisdiction over their respective territories. Rather than considering the early use of force as a viable option for dealing with situations like the Darfur conflict, the world's leaders have squandered opportunities for effective intervention by deferring to the sovereignty of brutal regimes.

Jentleson's observations about the discrepancy between state practice and the humanitarian ideals that underpin efforts to establish a responsibility-to-protect norm raise important questions about the utility of the concept of "international community." Though scorned by hard-boiled realists, the concept is popular among many scholars and policymakers, some of whom use it without realizing how it shapes the way we think about the international normative order. Consider, for example, what it means to frame a discussion of the responsibility-to-protect norm in terms of an international community rather than in terms of an international system or an international society.

When referring to a system of states, most people have in mind a set of regularly interacting political entities that are sufficiently interdependent to make the behavior of each influential on the others. The international normative order from this perspective is composed largely of informal understandings and tacit agreements that solve coordination problems, allowing actors with divergent interests to navigate through delicate situations and avoid common aversions.

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