Three Cheers for the French Safety Corridor

The suggestion to employ military force to open and safeguard a corridor from Chad into Sudan, to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, has much more importance than at first meets the eye. The suggestion has just been made by France's new foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who has much experience in these matters (he is a co-founder and former president of Doctors Without Borders).

The suggestion's global importance of this idea arises out of the fact that it further underscores a profound change in international norms that have been highly regarded and very often honored since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia; namely, that sovereign states are not to interfere in one another's internal affairs.

The origins of the shift in norms were laid in what was at first a little known book, Sovereignty as Responsibility by the Sudanese diplomat Francis M. Deng and his associates. They argue that when nations do not conduct their internal affairs in ways that meet certain internationally recognized standards--the Sudanese government's support for marauding militias in Darfur provides a key example--other nations not only have a passive right to intervene, but an active duty to do so. In other words, governments that fail to abide by internationally recognized standards of decency forfeit their sovereign rights. Sovereignty is thus transformed from an absolute claim into a conditional one, revocable in case of bad behavior.

Thus this seminal book in effect redefines sovereignty. Deng and his co-authors replace the longstanding definition of sovereignty as "supreme authority within a territory," with a new definition: "sovereignty as responsibility means that national governments are duty bound to ensure minimum standards of security and social welfare for their citizens and be accountable both to the national body politic and the international community."

As Deng puts it, if a nation-state fails to fulfill its obligations, the "right to inviolability should be regarded as lost, first voluntarily as the state itself asks for help from its peers, and then involuntarily as it has help imposed on it in response to its own inactivity or incapacity and to the unassuaged needs of its own people." It follows therefore that "the sovereign state's responsibility and accountability to both domestic and external constituencies must be affirmed as interconnected principles of national and international order." The international community expects states to bring their domestic laws and conduct into line with established international standards; if they do not, others have a responsibility to interfere in the offending state's internal affairs. Thus, Deng's justification for armed humanitarian intervention turns what was once a taboo of international relations into an ethical imperative.

Deng wryly notes that "the obligation of the state to preserve lifesustaining standards for its citizens . . . as a necessary precondition of sovereignty . . . is not yet fully or consistently observed in practice." Little wonder. The traditional conception of sovereignty, allowing for complete national autonomy, prescribed for centuries what a legitimate international order entailed. Ever since the Treaty of Westphalia brought into being the sovereign nation-state by placing authority over matters of religion exclusively in the hands of each state's ruler, one ruler could no longer go to war with another in order to protect fellow believers. French and Spanish kings could no longer rush to the aid of beleaguered English and Dutch Catholics, and England could no longer suit up to fight for Protestants on the Continent. This emergent notion of sovereignty was expanded to encompass domestic matters in general. War could be legitimate only if one state violated the territorial integrity of another.

The genocides and other atrocities of the 1990s have led several statesmen and public intellectuals to favor a reassessment of the inviolability of state sovereignty. Their concerns were reinforced and gained more of a public hearing in the wake of the widespread condemnations that followed the U.N. failure to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which left upward of eight hundred thousand dead. The advocates of change found still more support following the outrage over the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, in which Serbian troops in eastern Bosnia killed approximately seven thousand Bosnian Muslim men--a killing several observers believe was facilitated rather than prevented by U.N. peacekeeping troops.

These events and the growing international reaction to them led U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to pose the question, "If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica--to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?" To respond to this challenge, the Canadian government established a commission with the kind of title such bodies typically acquire: the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). It was chaired by the former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, special adviser to Kofi Annan. The commission put the recharacterization of sovereignty as responsibility at the center of its proposals:

"The Charter of the U.N. is itself an example of an international obligation voluntarily accepted by member states. On the one hand, in granting membership of the U.N., the international community welcomes the signatory state as a responsible member of the community of nations. On the other hand, the state itself, in signing the Charter, accepts the responsibilities of membership flowing from that signature. There is no transfer or dilution of state sovereignty. But there is a necessary recharacterization involved: from sovereignty as control to sovereignty as responsibility in both internal functions and external duties."

The same recharacterization of sovereignty as responsibility has also been strongly endorsed by another commission, with an even more ponderous title: the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change. The international panel of experts, formed at the behest of Kofi Annan in 2003, released a report the following year entitled "A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility." This report, too, reached the same conclusion that the time has come for the global community to mind the basic security of people within nations, not just relations among nations. The report states: "History teaches us all too clearly that it cannot be assumed that every State will always be able, or willing, to meet its responsibilities to protect its own people and avoid harming its neighbors. And in those circumstances, the principles of collective security mean that some portion of those responsibilities should be taken up by the international community, acting . . . to help build the necessary capacity or supply the necessary protection, as the case may be."

Annan warmly received the commission's report--not always the fate of such documents. Indeed he subsequently urged that "the international community should embrace the 'responsibility to protect,' as a basis for collective action against genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

So far though these changes in norms have remained largely in the realm of ideas and transnational deliberations. France seems set to provide them an international reality, for which is deserves at least three cheers.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of sociology and international relations at The George Washington University. This text draws on his book Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, just published by Yale University Press