The economy isn't the only human endeavour taking a beating these days. The pursuit of universal human rights is also under assault. And it's not a stretch to say that the two are connected.


Gen. Rick Hillier, in the spring of 2008 shortly before his retirement from the Canadian Forces. (Canadian Press) ((Les Perreaux/Canadian Press))

More and more as the world retreats into itself, as nations desperately look for ways to survive the financial tsunami bearing down on them, there is less and less of a sustained commitment to those global values that were so in vogue just a few short years ago.

Prior to 9/11 and its aftermath, there had been a half-century of nearly uninterrupted acceptance of the idea that there are certain core rights to which all humans are entitled.

But that support seems to be shifting and nowhere is this more evident than in the world's attitude toward the concept of humanitarian intervention.

Remember Bosnia? Remember Kosovo? Remember then president Bill Clinton saying "enough is enough" to former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic?

If so, then you recall how Clinton intervened, with NATO's help, to put an end to the violence in the Balkans. You may also remember Clinton's predecessor George H. Bush sending troops to Somalia to prevent famine and intervening in northern Iraq to aid the Kurds.

These were the actions of world leaders who were cognizant of values thought to be at the very core of the community of nations, not to mention the human condition, stuff like the right to be free from state oppression, the right not to be exterminated, the right to justice.

Times change

Back then, the pillars of the international community accepted their responsibility to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide, to arrest war criminals, to restore democracy and to provide disaster relief when national governments were either unable or unwilling to do so. No longer.

The reluctance of the Western world to go where it once boldly went was at the heart of a recent debate in Toronto before a well-heeled crowd who had gathered to witness a publicized clash over the value of humanitarian intervention.

The tension between narrow national interests and global humanitarian values promised to heat up an otherwise frigid late-fall evening at what are known as the Munk Debates, sponsored by the University of Toronto. It was a promise largely unkept.

What followed was an exchange of shibboleths familiar to both sides that did little to convince anyone of anything except that a moribund state of affairs surrounds the so-called right to protect, a recent concept championed by Canadians at the UN and embraced by global activists as the modern articulation of the humanitarian principle.

The right to protect

At its core, the right to protect holds that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians who live in states that are unable or unwilling to safeguard significant segments of their own people.

The doctrine has been controversial from the moment it became fully articulated in 2001, largely because it challenges another international doctrine, much favoured by China and Russia among others, known as state sovereignty.

That concept holds that what goes on inside a state's borders is the responsibility of that state alone. Other states are expected to refrain from interfering. It is a proscription that has pretty much gone unchallenged since at least the 17th century.

In support of the right to protect, actress and activist Mia Farrow, delivered a largely listless defence of humanitarian intervention while the event's obligatory dark knight, (George W. Bush's) former ambassador to the UN John Bolton, fired off well aimed rounds of crisp rhetoric wrapped in impeccable logic.

What's more, if Bolton dominated the debate, it was his intellectual partner in the night's event, Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's former chief of defence staff, who came in a close second. Hillier cautioned people not to confuse national interest with an appeal to global values.

It is the soldier who guarantees freedom of speech, he said, not the media. It is the soldier who guarantees democracy, not the politician. It was his observation, as a career soldier, that well-intentioned international values, however heartfelt, tend to melt away the moment the body bags start coming home.

For or against

Hillier conceded that humanitarian intervention is a fine theory. But as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, in theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

Try as they might, neither Farrow nor her talking partner, Gareth Evans, co-chair of the report that first articulated the right to protect, could pierce Hillier's rhetorical armour (though Farrow did land the occasional blow).

Prior to the start of the debate, the audience voted either for or against humanitarian intervention. Pre-debate results were 79/21 in favour. In the end, few changed their position.

Post-debate, the results were 68/32 in favour. Still, while most of the audience seemed sympathetic to the right to protect and humanitarian intervention, one couldn't help but wonder just how deep that support went.

Consider Zimbabwe's almost criminally neglectful response to the plight of its people or Sudan's equally criminal actions against the people of Darfur, or the European Union's reluctance to intervene in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

The developed world's lacklustre response to these atrocities suggests that the global commitment to humanitarian intervention is not as strong as broad sentiment would seem to suggest.

The new reality seems to be that the concept of national sovereignty, as an inviolable and overriding principle of global law, is once again on the ascendancy.

Universal declaration

This month, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Magna Carta of our times, marks its 60th anniversary. With national interests seemingly nudging out global values, it's as good a time as any to re-assess our notion of what the international system is meant to be.

Is it just a collection of legal nuts and bolts cobbled together by governments to protect other governments? Or is it a living framework of rules designed to internationalize the human conscience?

Mia Farrow argues that humanitarian intervention is an expression of who we are as human beings?

But John Bolton counters that the entire concept is "meaningless" in an age of terrorism, economic meltdown and compelling national interests.

That last point raises an interesting question, of course: if not then, when?