n 1998, I visited Central Asia's former Soviet republics for talks concerning the democratic development that was -- or should have been -- taking place in those newly independent countries. My hosts were former communist leaders who were now more or less democratically elected presidents. Each spoke easily about institutions, democratic procedures, and respect for the rule of law. But human rights were another matter entirely.
In each country, I presented lists of political prisoners and asked about their fates. In one country, the president immediately decided to free a man accused of plotting a coup. But even this seeming success was morally ambiguous. The president had not made a political decision; he had bestowed a personal favor. I was receiving a gift -- itself merely another demonstration of the president's arbitrary exercise of power -- not proof of respect for moral principles.
In one country, I spoke with a leader of the Islamic fundamentalist opposition, which had waged a long civil war against the government. This man now styled himself as chairman of a "Committee of National Reconciliation." Guards armed to the teeth surrounded him, yet he firmly supported the notion of democratization. Indeed, he saw it as his surest route to power, because the vast majority of the population thought exactly as he did.
Democracy, he hinted more ominously, would enable him to "eliminate" -- he did not dwell on the exact meaning of the word -- those who did not.
In such democracies without democrats, "human rights" are more problematic to discuss than procedural formalities, because they are not thought of as "rights" in the legal sense, but merely as pangs of conscience, or else as gifts to be exchanged for something else of value. This distinction matters because it points to the limited effectiveness of formalized legal norms as a means of promoting human rights.
This gap between human rights and the behavior of rulers has brought about the greatest shift in the conduct of international affairs in our time -- the advent of "humanitarian intervention." It arose initially outside established international institutions and the UN system, originating with the French group, Doctors Without Borders, which deemed human rights to be a value superior to national sovereignty.
Doctors Without Borders introduced the concept of "the right of intervention" in humanitarian disasters, bypassing the strictures of traditional international law.
The international system rather quickly adopted (and transformed) this notion, and numerous humanitarian military interventions followed -- in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone. As a rule, such operations were conducted under the Security Council's mandate. A notable exception was NATO's intervention in Kosovo, which was not explicitly sanctioned by the UN.
The Kosovo intervention was also notable in another way: its legitimation was entirely moral in character, responding to the Milosevic regime's ethnic cleansing campaign, which had created a real threat of yet another immense humanitarian disaster.
NATO's intervention in Kosovo is a precedent that US Secretary of State Colin Powell used to justify the war with Iraq. But, however compelling the cause of humanitarian military intervention, such actions must be brought under the umbrella of the UN Charter. Promoting respect for human rights was, after all, the guiding principle behind the UN's establishment. Its tasks in this area were affirmed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which give human rights legal supremacy over the sovereignty of individual states.