Protecting the vulnerable at home and abroad

The first need for any community is to keep its members safe from hunger, privation and violence. Without safety, coherence and prosperity are at risk.

Hence the stuttering debate about families who do not nurture their children. The children lose opportunity, the community loses a contribution and, worse, may take on heavy costs later if the child turns destructive adult.

That argues for community help for the children from before pregnancy until young adulthood, most particularly in the early years before too much of a child’s opportunity is lost. Community responsibility and self-interest mesh.

In a small community the whole-of-community interest in the children is obvious. In a modern large and disaggregated nation we dump it on the state.

Actually it is a job best done by people and organisations with best access to mothers and children. The lumbering, rules-bound state does not have the best access. What the state has is power. Citizens assign it power, and therefore a duty, to protect them from deprivation and violence.

This is the core of the 2005 United Nations doctrine of the “responsibility to protect”: a state’s first duty is to protect its citizens; when it fails in that or, worse, starves, kills and tortures them, the duty devolves upon other states to intervene.

The grounds for such intervention are strict: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This is for several reasons, not least practicality and the prospect of success.

As Ramesh Thakur, a former Otago University professor and an architect of the doctrine, put it in an article on May 19, “broadening it to cover contingencies like nuclear proliferation, environmental vandalism, HIV/AIDS and natural disasters may have the perverse effect of weakening support for it when we (really need it) tomorrow without materially helping the needy today.”

Thakur rejected military intervention in Myanmar, whose rulers committed a crime against humanity by obstructing international aid after the cyclone (though in a second article he did allow that if large numbers died it might become relevant).

But, presciently, he did say: “A potential R2P situation might arise in Zimbabwe, with the army taking charge and liquidating opponents.” In the past week Zimbabwe seemed to enter that frame, even though still not engaging in genocide, war crimes or ethnic cleansing.

In any case, invasion to oust Robert Mugabe has not been seriously suggested at the United Nations. The west’s forces are committed in Iraq and Afghanistan already; intervention would best be done by Africans; invasion might worsen Zimbabweans’ plight for a time, as it did the Iraqis’.

So “action” is reduced to words, diplomatic pressure (including on too-tolerant South Africa) and “smart” sanctions — of that sort that haven’t loosened the military’s grip on Fiji. The risk, which Thakur acknowledges, is that waiting for the perfect set of circumstances might mean action is never taken, even if there is another Rwanda-type genocide, which was the trigger for developing the doctrine.

But, even if the United Nations, being composed of inviolable states, can act only in the most extreme circumstances and maybe not then, that does not relieve states’ moral and practical duty to keep their citizens safe from harm and violence.

Mostly in this country that is thought of in terms of murder, rape and mayhem, of which there has been a bit lately.

But there is another dimension: our colonial history.

Iwi and hapu were protected in theory by the Treaty of Waitangi. Maori were made equal “subjects” (citizens). In fact, they were largely dispossessed of their assets, their culture and their self-respect. It wasn’t genocide but it crushed morale. Hapu and whanau were less able to ensure their members’ welfare. In part the gang violence can be traced to that dispossession and demoralisation.

In short, governments here for 140 years failed the “responsibility to protect” test for a large and distinguishable minority of our citizens.

Only with the initiation of the Treaty of Waitangi process of truth and reconciliation and compensation a generation ago have governments recognised this past failure and attended to it.

Last week marked an important stage in that process. This year will be seen in retrospect as a pivotal year. The time was right for Michael Cullen and his take on justice. Cullen, with his skill, drive and mana, was right for the time.

But this is not the end (as a British Prime Minister once famously said) nor even beginning of the end. It is the end of the beginning. Rebuilding assets and morale is a multi-generation task. The good news from last week is the upbeat emphasis by iwi on economic opportunity in place of the long, sad argument about rights denied.

From the paramount necessity to invest well in our children to righting oppression in Africa to reversing the demoralisation of iwi it is a demanding project, this responsibility to protect.