The Churches and the Responsibility to Protect

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2005 Volume 26 Issue 2

Over the past decade and longer, the international ecumenical community has joined the international political community in engaging the difficult question of the world’s collective responsibility to people caught in conditions of extraordinary violence and human rights violations. Rwanda is the compelling contemporary symbol of people abandoned in human-made catastrophe. Recent consultations hosted by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, a body of the World Council of Churches, brought together representatives of diverse theological, political, and national traditions to further consider the responsibility to protect and the use of force in such efforts.

A participant in the consultations, Ernie Regehr offers this assessment of the broad direction of church thinking on these issues.

Globally, churches seem to be in strong support of the emerging international norm of the responsibility to protect. This norm holds that national governments clearly bear the primary and sovereign responsibility to provide for the safety of their people. Indeed, a state’s sovereignty is to some extent conditional on its capacity to carry out the responsibility to protect and serve the welfare of its people. When there is egregious failure to carry out that responsibility, whether through neglect, the lack of capacity, or deliberate assaults by the state on its own citizens, the international community has the duty to override sovereignty and intervene in the internal affairs of the state in the interests and safety of the people.

Protection and human security

Churches also seem to be in broad agreement that the active and persistent pursuit of human security offers the most reliable prospect for protecting people and preventing the kinds of human-made humanitarian catastrophes that we now witness in Darfur, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Northern Uganda, and that we saw earlier in Rwanda, Southern Sudan, Cambodia, and many other locations of acute insecurity. Insecurity is most immediately experienced as unmet basic needs, political exclusion and the denial of basic rights, social and political disintegration, and the related escalation of criminal and political violence. Thus the churches promote, and participate in the delivery of, measures that address and mitigate the ways in which people and communities experience insecurity by assuring the physical safety of people; meeting basic economic, social, and health needs; respecting fundamental rights and freedoms; controlling the instruments of violence and prohibiting the means of mass destruction; and honoring the dignity and worth of all people.

Protection and the resort to force

In calling on the international community to come to the aid of vulnerable people in extraordinary suffering and peril, churches are not prepared to say that it is never appropriate or never necessary to resort to the use of lethal force for the protection of the vulnerable. This refusal in principle to preclude the use of force is based not on a naive belief that force can be relied on to solve otherwise intractable problems, but rather on the certain knowledge that the primary consideration must be the welfare of people, especially those in situations of extreme vulnerability who are utterly abandoned to the whims and prerogatives of their tormentors. The resort to force is first and foremost the result of the failure to prevent what could have been prevented with the appropriate foresight and actions. But having failed, and having acknowledged such failure, the world needs to do what it can to limit the burden and peril that is experienced by people as a consequence. Just as individuals and communities in stable and affluent societies are able in emergencies to call on armed police to come to their aid, churches recognize that people in much more perilous circumstances should have access to protectors. Churches are thus not prepared to say that armed force can never be effective in bringing at least a short-term reprieve.

So churches do not fudge or shrink from the issue of the resort to force for protection. They acknowledge that in some circumstances force will be the only available option – an option that cannot guarantee success but that must be tried because the world has failed to find any other means of coming to the aid of those in desperate situations.

The limits of force

The churches do not, however, look to the exercise of lethal force to bring in a new order of peace and safety. In limiting the resort to force quite specifically to objectives of immediate protection, the churches acknowledge, indeed insist, that the kinds of long-term solutions that are required – that is, the restoration of societies to conditions in which people are for the most part physically safe; in which basic economic, social, and health needs are met; where fundamental rights and freedoms are respected; where the instruments of violence are controlled; and in which the dignity and worth of all people are affirmed – cannot be delivered by force. Indeed, limiting legitimate force to protective operations reveals the understanding that the distresses of deeply troubled societies cannot be quickly alleviated by either military means or diplomacy; and that in the long and painstakingly slow process of rebuilding the conditions for sustainable peace, those that are most vulnerable are entitled to protection from at least the most egregious of threats.

The use of force for humanitarian purposes is not the attempt to find military solutions to social and political problems, to militarily engineer new social and political realities. Rather, it is intended to mitigate imminent threats and to alleviate immediate suffering while long-term solutions are sought by other means.

The context of the resort to force

Force must therefore be used in the context of a broad spectrum of economic, social, political, and diplomatic efforts to address the direct and long-term conditions that underlie the crisis. Military interventions should be accompanied by humanitarian relief efforts, and should include the resources and will to stay with the people in peril until essential order and public safety are restored and there is a demonstrated local capacity to continue to build conditions of durable peace.

The nature of force for humanitarian purposes

The force that is to be deployed and used for humanitarian purposes must also be distinguished from military war-fighting methods and objectives. The report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) repeats this point several times. While noting that peacekeeping was designed to monitor ceasefires between belligerent states, the ICISS report says, “The challenge in this context is to find tactics and strategies of military intervention that fill the current gulf between outdated concepts of peacekeeping and full-scale military operations that may have deleterious impacts on civilians” (2001, p. 5). Later it makes the point that “military intervention [for humanitarian purposes] involves a form of military action significantly more narrowly focused and targeted than all out warfighting” (p. 37). Winning the acceptance of civilian populations, says the report, “means accepting limitations and demonstrating through the use of restraint that the [military] operation is not a war to defeat a state but an operation to protect populations in that state from being harassed, persecuted or killed” (p. 63). Such intervention is more related to policing – though not necessarily in the level of force required, since it is inevitable that in some instances protection forces will face heavily armed, even unrestrained, adversaries. But military operations to protect people are analogous to policing in the sense that the armed forces are not employed to ‘win’ a conflict or defeat a regime. They are there only to protect people in peril and to maintain some level of public safety while other authorities and institutions pursue solutions to underlying problems.

Such a defined and restrained use of force requires specialized training, equipment, and rules of engagement.

The political/moral will to act when prevention fails

Churches may actively call for military intervention for humanitarian purposes. These calls will likely be reluctant because churches, like other institutions and individuals, will always know that the current situation of peril could have been, and should have been, avoided. In such circumstances the churches should find it appropriate to recognize their own collective culpability in failing to prevent the crises that have put people in such peril.

Spread the Word