Comparative Ethics and the Responsibility to Protect

By Roger Hutchinson | 2010-04-01 01:00:00

The Responsibility to Protect is a specific proposal developed in 2001. Often called “R2P,” it focuses on the rights of civilian populations and the responsibilities of sovereignty, not only on the rights of sovereignty. Governments can no longer hide behind sovereignty to perpetrate with impunity gross violations of their citizens’ human rights.

The R2P concept is not primarily about military intervention, although this is the focus of most debate. It includes three specific responsibilities: (a) to prevent—to address the causes of conflict and other crises; (b) to react — with responses that may include coercive measures such as sanctions or international prosecution, and military intervention in such cases as large scale death or ethnic cleansing; © to rebuild—to assist reconstruction and reconciliation.

The concept also involves criteria for intervention, for example: (a) the scale of military intervention should be the minimum necessary for human security; (b) there should be a reasonable chance of success in halting the suffering; © the primary purpose of the intervention must be to avert suffering.

My interest in current debates over R2P framework is related both to my membership in a United Church task group on peace policy and to my participation in workshops sponsored by Project Ploughshares. We have been considering whether to agree with the R2P concept and what it means in practice.

The United Church’s 1994 Peace Policy

The Task Group began by reviewing a 1994 policy statement by the church called “Beyond Military Force: Seeking Peace after the Cold War.” It noted the thousands of nuclear weapons, the 82 armed conflicts underway in 60 locations, and the calls for the UN’s so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’ — the use of deadly military force to achieve ceasefires, prevent ethnic cleansing, or to end sieges against civilians.

The statement provided theological grounds for rejecting military force on the basis of religious beliefs, while admitting that hard decisions have to be made in complex situations. It expressed reservations about the use of military force: “Christ’s teaching demands that evil in human society be overcome with good and that justice and peace be built by means of love and nonviolent action.”

On the other hand, it noted that the needs of neighbors in concrete situations may require difficult judgments: “In the practice of discernment, we need to ensure that we are not asking victims to submit to abuse or suicide by our indifference, paralysis, or rigid clinging to principle.”

The policy statement mentioned conflicts that concerned the church in the early 1990s and rejected the call for “humanitarian intervention” for two reasons. First, “We have no evidence that military solutions brought about by outsiders will achieve a ceasefire in the kinds of wars underway today.” Second, alternatives to “humanitarian military intervention by deadly military means [had] not yet been tried.”

Combined, the ethical arguments in favor of nonviolence and the evidence questioning the effectiveness of intervention led to recommendations emphasizing prevention and alternatives to intervention. However, the contextual nature of this judgment means that changing circumstances could lead to a different conclusion.

The Responsibility to Protect

When the United Church appointed a Peace Policy Task Group in 2005, two events had dramatically changed the context for considering the church’s peace policies. The Rwandan genocide and the failure of the international community to aid its victims had produced a “never again” reaction. Controversy was continuing over the interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The UN secretary general was seeking a consensus on when and how intervention should occur, and under whose authority.

The Canadian government took up that challenge by sponsoring the commission that in 2001 produced “The Responsibility to Protect” report. Lloyd Axworthy chaired the commission’s advisory board. As foreign minister he had been struggling with the tension between state sovereignty and international responsibilities regarding state violence.

For some individuals and organizations, there was no need for argument. For example, the National Council of Churches in Australia stated that “ultimately, we must support R2P simply because it is the right thing to do: our common humanity demands that the world never again sees another Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, or Bosnia.”

However, the September 11, 2001 attacks had a different impact on the context. These attacks provided justification for a “war against terrorism,” which is sometimes misleadingly confused with intervention for humanitarian purposes. The subsequent US war in Iraq tended to discredit the whole idea of foreign military intervention.

Uncertainty about the UN’s role in providing collective security led the UN secretary general to set up the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change in 2003. It showed how the R2P doctrine gradually became a “candidate norm in international relations.” However, before considering R2P a binding norm, reluctant states need to be convinced that it is really needed. The debates within churches have implications for the possibility that the R2P principle could become a binding norm of international law.

The Debate in the United Church

The United Church discussion took place after the World Council of Churches arrived at its recommendation. The decision of the World Council to support R2P might be something of a surprise, in view of its diverse membership. The double negative in its recommendation provides a clue to the careful wordsmithing that allowed for agreement. The recommendation said that, “the fellowship of the churches is not prepared to say that it is never appropriate or never necessary to resort to the use of force for the protection of the vulnerable” (emphasis added).

The United Church’s peace policy task group began its work in 2005 and consulted overseas partners and United Church congregations in Canada. Its draft report recommended that the Responsibility to Protect agenda should be endorsed by the United Church as a framework for assessing responses to vulnerable peoples in need of protection.

The consultations showed strong differences regarding what R2P is and whether it should be endorsed. In the end, however, it was agreed that the United Church should say yes to R2P.

The discussion kept returning to the acceptance or rejection of military force in principle, as opposed to judgments in particular situations on practical, consequentialist grounds. While most participants agreed with the recommendation, partners from the Presbyterian Church of Cuba, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, and the Middle East Council of Churches all expressed very negative attitudes towards R2P. Some rejected any military role for Northern or Western nations in Southern or Eastern nations. Others stated that in principle Christians should not support military operations.

The United Church’s educational program, “Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire,” supports concern about Western or Northern intervention in Southern or Eastern states. One suggestion was that the United Church support military force only when a partner group requested such intervention.

This idea was resisted by the peace task group. We pointed out that in some areas potentially needing protection, the United Church does not have partners. Also, we invoked the testimony of former Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat from Kenya, who told us what it was like to watch the bodies float down the river from Rwanda. His thought at the time was not whether they had asked for help but why the international community had failed to do something, such as equipping Rwanda’s African neighbors to provide protection.

Assessing Claims, Arguments and Underlying Convictions

Some claims focus on what is going on; others on rights, principles, or general rules (e.g. the pacifist rejection in principle of the use of lethal force); others on the consequences of particular actions (e.g. Ernie Regehr of Project Ploughshares, “If the refusal to use force costs lives, it really becomes culpable nonviolence”); while still others are related to basic beliefs and values regarding a whole way of life (e.g., the worry that R2P interventions by Western nations might cover up the aims of empire).

Background theories, myths, metaphors, and symbols shape the stories in the debate. For example, Ernie Regehr has said that “The churches do not … look to the use of lethal force to bring in a new order of peace and safety.” He rejects the apocalyptic tradition that escalates conflicts into cosmic encounters between good and evil and that ridicules efforts to achieve limited goals as “mere reformist tinkering.” When left unacknowledged, such excessive assumptions prevent disciplined conversations of discernment.

Clarification through the Case of Burma

The United Church conversations about R2P showed that ideas may change as the lens zooms in to focus on particular details. Consider, for example, the case of Burma. In May 2008 the Cyclone Nargis created a humanitarian crisis in Burma. The perverse rejection of foreign aid or foreign aid workers by the ruling generals generated calls for an international response.

The French Foreign Minister called it a proper case for coercive intervention to force the delivery of aid, since the R2P principle had been unanimously endorsed by 150 heads of state and governments at the 2005 UN World Summit. Others argued that the consensus about R2P restricted outside military intervention to situations of large-scale killings or ethnic cleansing, not death caused by natural disasters. They were concerned that the doctrine, if misused, would become more difficult to apply in legitimate cases.

Still others denied the relevance of R2P as long as Cyclone Nargis remained only a natural disaster, but argued that if the Burmese authorities still withheld aid from the victims, then the disaster becomes the scene of crimes against humanity.

Lloyd Axworthy took a middle position. He agreed with the French Foreign Minister that natural disasters fall within the legitimate boundaries for the application of R2P. “The fundamental message of R2P is that there is no moral difference between an innocent person being killed by machete and starving or dying in a cholera epidemic that could have been avoided by proper international response.”

However, he also insisted that to apply the R2P framework to Burma is not to call for the immediate use of military force. He reminded us that under R2P, military intervention is an absolute last resort and expressed concern that some were too quick to assume the need for force. He argued that, “The R2P tool box contains a wide range of diplomatic, political, and economic measures to pressure governments, and build their capacity to fully exercise their responsibility to protect the people within their borders.” Using R2P as a call to action would require countries to pressure the Burmese government and search for ways of responding, such as drops from military planes and the establishment of security zones for the displaced. The debate over Burma reflects fundamentally different approaches to the development of law.

I think of the R2P framework as similar to the Canadian charter of rights — like a living tree, it will be interpreted in the common law tradition through appeals to precedents and analogy (is Burma like Rwanda or Iraq?). Its application to particular cases is debatable and may revise the framework itself.

But some arguments over R2P suggest something closer to a natural law position in which answers are deduced from first principles. Pacifists have ruled out military intervention in all cases — a clear deduction from a principle. However, the reverse argument from first principles is also functioning in the R2P debate. Some seem to think that if military intervention isn’t ruled out in all cases then, logically, it will be mandated in all cases. They skip the deliberative process.

The Responsibility to Be Prepared

The report on the R2P doctrine calls prevention the most important responsibility of the international community. We need to be prepared for interventions of a different sort — the toolbox referred to by Axworthy, the prevention that we so often omit. The report also insists that when military force has to be used, its scale, duration, and intensity should be the minimum necessary for human protection.

Are there changes needed in our military preparation for R2P interventions?

In May 12^th^, 2008, Prime Minister Harper promised “to give the military the troop numbers and equipment it needs to do its job.” He promised that a 20-year, $30 billion “Canada First defence strategy will ensure that Canadian Forces have the personnel and equipment they need to protect our values and protect our interests, to fulfill Canada’s international commitments, and to keep our true north strong and free.”

Ernie Regehr acknowledges Canada’s need for a military capacity. He emphasizes, however, that the R2P principle requires a clearly defined and restrained use of force. This will require specialized training, equipment, and rules of engagement. What is the relationship between that orientation and our Government’s understanding of what is required “to fulfill Canada’s international commitments”?

A distinction is emerging between the resort to war and the resort to force. Regehr points out that one of the most helpful conclusions of the R2P commission was that the duty to intervene requires the use of means that are in fact designed to protect. He argues that:

“Protection operations that carry out bombing raids from 20,000 feet, risking civilian casualties and the creation of huge streams of refugees to ‘soften up’ the environment so that intervening forces will face the least possible risk, are the equivalent of domestic police, finding a dangerously abusive situation in an urban home, setting up a block away to lob grenades into the home and neighborhood to eliminate all resistance before entering to help those in peril.”

We need to think more about the use of restrained force on the model of domestic policing. What implications would this have for the allocation of defence dollars, the nature of recruiting campaigns, and the way military personnel are trained and equipped? I don’t know the answer, but I certainly am glad that the churches are addressing this question.

Roger Hutchinson is emeritus professor of religious studies, University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2010

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2010, page 20. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Roger Hutchinson here

Peace Magazine homepage