The Ambiguities of Protecting the Vulnerable

Tasneem Jamal

Larissa Fast

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2002 Volume 23 Issue 4

Over the past six months, Project Ploughshares has organized several events designed to focus on various elements from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report entitled The Responsibility to Protect (2001). This report, summarized in the Spring 2002 issue of The Ploughshares Monitor (Fast 2002), modifies the debate about intervention from one about state sovereignty to one about the right of citizens to be protected from “large-scale loss of life” or “large-scale ethnic cleansing.” In essence, the Report places responsibility for protection in the hands of the international community in instances when the state is unable or unwilling to guarantee the security of its own citizens.

To explore the policy implications of this Report, Project Ploughshares organized and sponsored (with financial support from The Simons Foundation) two seminars that addressed first, the ethical and theological issues around intervention and, second, the operational dimensions of intervention. While the focus of each seminar was vastly different, each raised a series of difficult dilemmas that confront policymakers and concerned citizens.1 This article summarizes and expands upon some of these, focusing in particular on some of the ambiguities of protecting the vulnerable.

While these dilemmas are particularly acute when violence rages unabated and pictures and stories of horrific abuses fill the front pages of newspapers and the television screens in our living rooms, this same violence also constrains the range of options available to official and non-official actors. Mounting pressure to respond quickly and decisively, combined with the exigencies of crisis decision-making, often limit our individual and collective ability to be creative in the types of responses we advocate. The ICISS Report itself emphasizes the importance of prevention. Indeed, one of the precautionary criteria specifies that military intervention be used only as a last resort. Yet, in particularly abhorrent and egregious circumstances, the choice seems to revolve around what kind of response is appropriate, not about whether a response is appropriate. Where individuals and organizations differ from each other is in defining the type of response.

The (stereo-)typical responses to such circumstances are, on the one hand, military intervention to defeat the state or group perpetrating the abuses, and on the other, calling for further nonviolent responses, such as sanctions or diplomacy, arguing that violence begets violence and cannot address the root causes of a conflict. The ICISS Report, with its emphasis on prevention and, in extenuating circumstances, on military intervention to protect the vulnerable seems to offer a middle ground between these two extremes. What became clear upon reflecting on the seminars is that “protection” can be as ambiguous as the different interpretations of intervention.

The ICISS Report suggests that once a conflict has surpassed certain threshold conditions, it is incumbent upon the international community to react in order to protect vulnerable and threatened populations in that particular conflict. The Just Cause criterion that addresses the idea of thresholds specifies either “large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation” or “large scale ‘ethnic cleansing,’ actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape” (ICISS 2001, p. 32). The decisive reaction the Report recommends in these extenuating circumstances is military intervention for protection. Yet, even when cases meet this Just Cause criterion, the Report makes a clear distinction between protecting vulnerable populations and war-making. In the words of the Report, “This means accepting limitations [on the use of force] and demonstrating through the use of restraint that the operation is not a war to defeat a state but an operation to protect populations in that state from being harassed, persecuted or killed” (ICISS 2001, p. 63).

To ground the discussion of the operational issues of intervention in the second seminar, we used a detailed, fictional scenario prepared by the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, which allowed the group of participants to discuss the practicalities of a protective military intervention. The crisis scenario created an emergency situation in three separate areas of the fictional country of Fontinalis. In each of these areas, the government either committed gross human rights violations against its citizens, or the evidence pointed to the likelihood of such violations occurring in the immediate future. Thus, the information available in the scenario fit the threshold conditions of actual or apprehended ethnic cleansing and loss of life outlined in the ICISS Report that demand a response from the international community. As a result, the discussion focused not on whether military intervention was warranted, but instead on what a military intervention operation designed to protect vulnerable populations might look like. Two key elements of the ICISS report provided guidance for our discussion over the two days: that the use of military force to protect the vulnerable be a last resort; and that military intervention be designed to protect vulnerable populations and not to defeat a state.

It became clear in this second seminar that the difference between war-making and protection is an ambiguous and shifting boundary. The complexity of the crisis in Fontinalis, with emergency situations in three separate areas of the country, generated a series of questions regarding and challenges to the ICISS distinction between protection and war-making, and highlighted the inherent difficulties of protecting vulnerable populations. While some seminar participants stressed that regime change or war-making must not become the primary objective of intervention (intervention should seek to “ease suffering” rather than “solve the problem”), others suggested that the nature of the crisis necessitated changing the entire political system in order to achieve a stable and secure situation for all. Those arguing the latter point claimed that regime change is required to achieve genuine, long-term protection. Furthermore, they noted that the crisis in three separate areas of Fontinalis would complicate the planning process for an intervention designed to protect, stretching the material and human resources of the intervention force too thinly. In this case, the intervention forces would become isolated, and therefore at risk, and the effectiveness of their actions could be compromised if the whole country were not secure. Furthermore, some suggested that a shortcoming of the ICISS Report is that it argues against regime change even in cases of clear need. The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia under Pol Pot is an example of a case in which changing the government was, ultimately, the only way to provide protection to a vulnerable civilian population.

Those arguing against regime change emphasized that the international community can respond to attacks on vulnerable civilians without challenging governance structures. This idea of stopping short of regime change is also, as stated above, a central assumption within the ICISS Report. These individuals argued that an intervention would produce less violence and bring more effective protection if it focused on a more localized and immediate understanding of protection, such as the creation of safe havens and/or areas of protection, or the protection of refugee camps or groups of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

While the scenario was perhaps too complicated for the task at hand, with crisis situations in multiple and geographically separate locations across the country, it came as somewhat of a surprise that an intervention to protect civilians could look remarkably similar to any other type of military intervention. This in itself raises a further set of questions: How do we draw the line between the two? At what point, and in what ways, do these types of operations differ? Is the motivation of the intervening forces the only real difference? Given that the ICISS Report has yet to be operationalized, it may be a while before we have any clear answers to those questions. Nevertheless, it is likely that any intervention designed to protect civilians in grave peril would be limited in its scope (e.g., protecting a humanitarian corridor or a safe haven area), but would also allow the intervening troops to use force to defend themselves and those they are there to protect. As churches, organizations, and individuals committed to nonviolence, the key question for us remains: are there circumstances in which the only means of protecting vulnerable civilians in grave peril is through the use of limited military force?

In the ethics roundtable, the discussion focused on the dilemmas inherent in honouring both the commitment to nonviolence and the obligation to protect the vulnerable. The temptation for churches and NGOs is to emphasize the former. However, doing so has inevitable consequences. To frame the question more provocatively, whose needs do we, as churches, organizations, and individuals committed to nonviolence, ignore in our quest to maintain a pure ethical stance of nonviolence? In advocating an absolutist ethic that ignores the obligation to protect, we risk undermining our goal of solidarity with the oppressed and vulnerable. Furthermore, we risk compromising our ability to advocate credibly for military restraint in Canadian policy if we maintain an absolute rejection of the use of force in all circumstances. Yet if we accept the use of force in certain circumstances, we weaken the validity of our commitment to nonviolence in all circumstances. Such an appeal to a more utilitarian ethic necessitates weighing in each separate case the advantages and disadvantages of each argument, thereby risking a slide toward the use of force in multiple, and multiplying, circumstances. The ambiguity here lies in sorting through these competing paradigms and retaining a commitment to both nonviolence and the obligation to protect the vulnerable – a difficult task.

Still, advocating any kind of military intervention, even for protection, is problematic for many within the ecumenical community. However, as participants in the seminar noted, in choosing between the often conflicting imperatives of a commitment to nonviolence and an obligation to protect the vulnerable it is crucial to clarify from whose perspective we are examining the issue. In other words, do we emphasize our own beliefs and values or do we look at the issue from the perspective of the vulnerable? The starting point of those asking the questions is crucial in determining the response.

One seminar participant offered the Biblical concept of forebearance as an alternative to seeing the two paradigms as competing. Forebearance does not imply agreement with the means, in this case the use of military force, but tolerates the means as the least evil option for pursuing an objective, in this case the use of force to protect vulnerable populations. Forebearance provides a way of potentially reconciling the two competing commitments, allowing for extenuating circumstances like large-scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing.

While the concept of forebearance is extremely useful in an ethical or theological context, the difficulty lies in applying it to other contexts. Specifically, the issue is that forebearance as a moral distinction between support for and tolerance of a position disappears when translated into a political or advocacy context, especially in contentious debates over the appropriate response or course of action. All not explicitly “standing against” an action (e.g., military action to protect the vulnerable) will inevitably be lumped together as supporting the action, even if they merely tolerate military intervention as the least harmful option. The distinction may be one of degree that is lost in other contexts.

Obviously, the two seminars on intervention raised more questions than answers. Nevertheless, we thank the participants of both seminars for helping us sort through and struggle with some of these questions and ambiguities.



  1. This article is not a summary of these sessions, but instead presents several of the issues that emerged most prominently in some of the discussions. In writing this article, I draw from the text of the reports from each of these two sessions.


ICISS 2001. The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa.

Fast, Larissa 2002. “Reframing the Intervention Debate: A Responsibility to Protect,” The Ploughshares Monitor, Spring, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 2-5.

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