The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2004 Volume 25 Issue 3
Janet Somerville is an activist, journalist and teacher. She was General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches from 1997-2002.
When Project Ploughshares first asked me about doing a reflection on “the responsibility to protect,” I immediately said No, explaining that I have neither the experience nor the theoretical expertise to do a credible job on the topic. Then, not being able to resist, I added that I certainly have some passionate personal thoughts on the topic, and that I would be happy to send those thoughts along.
I had in mind a kind of personal letter, making a few ethical points (three of them, to be exact) about which I feel very deeply. I know they are consonant with the Christian Gospel, but I know so little about actual international operations that I was afraid of only being passionate and unworldly – and that combination has resulted in some awful things in history (think, for example, of the Children’s Crusade in the Middle Ages).
But since Ploughshares raised the matter again, I decided to write what I would have said if I had had the audacity:
Of course there is an international responsibility to protect. Humanity is one family. Our system of global governance is still very primitive and immature: it is underdeveloped. Therefore there are real limits to our CAPACITY (skills, traditions, political authorization, techniques, experienced leadership, resources) to intervene. So the implementation is limited by our barely nascent capacity, but the obligation is unlimited, because human solidarity is an ethical first principle.
Human solidarity is quite distinct from national interests. Therefore the participants in an international intervention SHOULD ALWAYS BE VOLUNTEERS. They should not be this or that division of a national army with conventional military training. They need a different kind of training, although some of them might well be members of a national army. Some will not be members of any national army.
Since protection usually requires the threat or the use of force (as in police work in a national/domestic setting), protectors will bear arms. But THEY MUST BE WILLING TO DIE IN THE COURSE OF PROTECTING THE VULNERABLE. To send armed soldiers into a violent situation with instructions not to intervene in many circumstances where vulnerable people are getting killed completely guts the old gutsy ethics of “justified war,” without replacing them with the high, demanding ethics of genuine non-violence or pacifism. It makes “good” warriors hate themselves and despise the mission. It breeds contempt for the “blue helmets” in the minds of the aggressors and of the victims in the conflict situation. It is a compromise that sucks all the nobility and greatness out of our hesitant modern efforts to uses old skills in a new, global way. Real pacifists have always known that peace demands as much of us as war ever did; peacemakers who refuse to risk or face death will never convert our civilization to a new, higher vision.
It goes without saying that protectors must do everything possible to protect the vulnerable without killing the aggressors, just as good police practice dictates in our best traditions. The aggressors are to be rendered harmless, but with the greatest respect for their lives. Bombing them from thousands of metres up, so as to keep the protectors invulnerable, is usually the opposite of peacemaking.
Christians have always known (if they take the Gospel seriously) that anyone who is not willing “to take up his cross and follow” the way of the Cross, which specifically includes willingness to die, has not yet fully got the point. Christian discipleship is incomplete without the horizon of martyrdom, then and now. Making peace in a violent world can unfold only within the horizon of martyrdom. On the global scale of human solidarity, peacemaking is uninspiring and compromised unless people undertake it with a sober willingness to show that “greater love” of which Jesus spoke, which includes laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Not throwing life away, of course – military prudence is a virtue! – but being willing to go the limit. Treating the safety of the peacekeepers as a greater good than the very life of the vulnerable is spiritually and ethically unacceptable. It won’t work; it will breed shame and cynicism.
There. That’s why I haven’t had the nerve to say this before. I don’t think General Roméo Dallaire regards himself as a Christian thinker, but in his great human heart I’ll bet he agrees with this.
Please do whatever is useful with this highly personal confession.