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Responsibility to Protect

2010 September 20

Is There a “Responsibility to Protect”

Many of the torture survivors who have taken refuge in the United States have been singled out for abuse because of their social or political activism or other individual factors. Many others, however, have been caught up in mass violence directed at their nationality, their ethnic or religious group, or simply the place where they happen to live. They are victims not only of torture, but of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and, in the extreme, genocide.
…..What is our responsibility when such things happen? We demonstrate, call for censure and boycotts, raise money for relief efforts, welcome the survivors who manage to escape, but we know it’s never enough. What should we demand that our own government do in response to these crises? What should we expect of other countries, and of the United Nations? Are there cases where military force is necessary and appropriate.
…..A couple of evenings ago, I had the opportunity to attend a provocative discussion at Boston College, Humanitarian Intervention and the “Responsibility to Protect.” RtoP, as the participants refer to it, is the idea that under certain circumstances —  if a state fails to protect its own citizens against such crimes or is itself the perpetrator — the countries of the “international community” have a positive obligation to intervene and, if necessary, to use military force.
…..Arising out of concern over such conflicts as those in Rwanda, Darfur and the former Yugoslavia, the concept was codified in Paragraphs 138-139 of the “Outcome Document” of the 2005 United Nations World Summit. As described by the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect: “The Responsibility to Protect is a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”
…..While it recognizes the primary obligation of each state to protect its own population, and the responsibility of the “international community“ to use “appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means” to protect the population if the state fails to do so:

“When a state ‘manifestly fails’ in its protection responsibilities, and peaceful means are inadequate, the international community must take stronger measures including Chapter VII measures under the UN Charter, including but not limited to the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council.” 

David Hollenbach, SJ, is a professor of theology and the Director of BC’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice. Hollenbach outlined the history of this new “human rights norm” and offered a strong and emotionally compelling case in its support, but he did not go unchallenged.

Mahmood Mamdani, professor of Government and Anthropology at Columbia University, asks what we mean by the “international community.” Is it a proxy for the so-called “great powers,” particularly the United States and Europe? If so, will its intervention be seen, perhaps with justice, as a continuation of colonial domination – especially since many of the underlying ethnic conflicts are themselves a legacy of colonialism? Most importantly, can outside intervention ever solve these conflicts, or will it leave behind the seeds of future outbreaks.

Alan Wolfe is a professor of Political Science at Boston College.  His comments were made primarily in the context of the conflict in Darfur, where he believes that the narrative of genocide propounded by such groups as the Save Darfur Committee — and many of the remedies they demanded — only made the situation worse, and may instead lead to future violence. As examples, he cites Sudanese President al-Bashir’s expulsion of relief agencies, as well as the fact that the no-fly zone demanded by the “international community” interfered with relief flights by Doctors Without Borders.

I’m in no way qualified to offer any more than the above very brief summary of the discussion that took place, and I hope I’ve done at least rough justice to the speakers’ positions. It’s something that I’ll be continuing to read and think about over the coming months, and I’ve listed some books and articles by the speakers below for any of you who feel inclined to do the same. (Images above in order: Boston College flier;  United Nations photo byEvan Schneider; United Nations photo by Eskinder Debebe; Save Darfur Committee poster.)

Driven from Home: Protecting the Rights of Forced Migrants, David Hollenbach, SJ, editor. Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 2010.

Refugee Rights: Ethics, Advocacy, and Africa, David Hollenbach, SJ, editor. Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 2008.

Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, Mahmood Mamdani. Pantheon, New York, 2009.

(If ordering books or DVDs discussed in this blog from Amazon, please consider doing so through our website, which will help to support the work of The Refuge Media Project. Click on the titles above to be redirected to our site. The articles below are available free on the web.)

Responsibility to Protect or Right to Punish? by Mahmood MamdaniMamdani on Darfur, by Alan Wolfe

Empty Nest: The Demise of a Species, By Alan WolfeThe article on Responsibility to Protect in Wikipedia, also lists some resources.

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