In her post on March 28th, Meghan Clark rightly brings up the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) in connection with UN Resolution 1973 concerning Libya. Since there appears to be a lack of familiarity with R2P in the U.S., I thought it appropriate to outline its contours. In 2007 I was invited to participate in a consultation on R2P at the Academy of Arnoldshain near Frankfurt, Germany, sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC) as part of its “Decade to Overcome Violence” program, which will culminate this May in an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica. The March 2001 issue of the WCC’s journal, The Ecumenical Review, contains articles related to this topic (“Peace on Earth-Peace with Earth”), including one that I wrote on R2P. My brief comments here are culled from there.

The phrase first appeared in a 2001 report by that title issued by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, an initiative of the Canadian government to reflect on how to move beyond the moral and jurisprudential obstacles surrounding what was referred to as “humanitarian intervention” during the 1990s in countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The United Nations subsequently studied this proposal, and at the 2005 World Summit, member states endorsed R2P. A report in January 2009 from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect” led to further debate and a resolution (A/RES/63/308) by the General Assembly in July 2009 committed the body to more discussion of R2P. Resolution 1973 is the first forceful implementation of R2P.

The WCC, for its part, accepted a report in 2003 from the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs under the title “The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections” and adopted the resolution “Vulnerable Populations at Risk: Statement on the Responsibility to Protect” during the WCC Ninth Assembly in February 2006 at Porto Alegre, Brazil. Most recently, in 2009 the WCC invoked R2P to spark international concern about Israel’s actions in Gaza. The Roman Catholic Church, to which I belong, also has begun to refer to R2P, with Pope Benedict XVI mentioning it in his address to the General Assembly of the UN on 18 April 2008 and, more recently, calling for its implementation in his major social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which was issued on 29 June 2009. Although there certainly continues to be debate about the concept in the international public square as well as within the churches, R2P seems to be gaining purchase as we embark upon this second decade of the 21st century.

In The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections, edited by Semegnish Asfaw, Guillermo Kerber, and Peter Weiderud (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005), Gareth Evans, who conducted pioneering work on R2P, believes it provides a “new way of talking about the whole issue of humanitarian intervention” (5). R2P nuances and qualifies national sovereignty, which is no longer understood as an absolute right to non-interference. Instead, state sovereignty entails responsibilities on the part of a nation to its own citizens; however, if a state fails to fulfill its primary responsibility to protect its own citizens, this responsibility transfers to the international community. The focus, as former WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser puts it in the same volume, is on “the human security of all people everywhere” (11), and especially those most at risk. R2P seeks to prevent and stop four crimes—genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing—and it involves three primary obligations: the responsibility to prevent (addressing the root and direct causes of conflict putting populations at risk); the responsibility to react (responding to egregious threats to human security through appropriate measures, including coercive measures such as sanctions and, in extreme cases, forceful military intervention); and the responsibility to rebuild (assisting with recovery, reconstruction, and reconciliation, as well as addressing the causes of the threat that the intervention averted or stopped).

In its 2001 statement, “The Protection of Endangered Populations in Situations of Armed Violence: Toward an Ecumenical Ethical Approach,” the WCC central committee emphasized a Christian ethic of “just peacemaking” (a paradigm made popular by American Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen) to prevent conflict, build peace, resolve disputes, and reconcile adversaries. There is a consensus at the WCC about the importance, therefore, of the first prong about the responsibility to prevent.

However, concerning the second prong, Evans rightly has observed that “the question of military action remains, for better or worse, the most prominent and controversial one in the debate” (5). WCC members, especially from the historic peace churches, have reservations about the use of force. In an effort to move forward in this debate, the 2006 WCC statement from Porto Alegre posits that force “deployed and used for humanitarian purposes” should be seen as “more related to just policing” than to “military war-fighting.” As Konrad Raiser likewise observes, “Even the military component follows a logic that is closer to the role of police; their task is not to ‘win’ and to liquidate an enemy, but rather to stop armed violence and to bring to justice those responsible for acts of violence” (15). At the same time, in the same volume that Raiser and Evans’ essays appear, Roger Williamson, along with others, has noted, “The [2001] report is set within the intellectual framework of the just war tradition, which includes criteria relating both to the decision to use military force and on the conduct of war” (60). For now I will simply note that whether we call it “just policing” or “just war,” a similar mode of moral reasoning applies, accompanied by criteria for when force is justified (e.g., it should be aimed at stopping grievous harms to civilians; it should be authorized by a legitimate authority; it should have a probability of success; etc.) and how it is justly employed (e.g., it should be proportionate; it should discriminate between noncombatants and noncombatants).

The third prong—the responsibility to rebuild—is not about nation-building. Rather, it includes things like rebuilding a local police force (recruiting, vetting, and training) to establish the rule of law, so that people feel secure and are able to begin to rebuild their lives. It also might include truth and reconciliation commissions, repairing hospitals and schools, and other things so that festering injustices that might lead to another flare up of the conflict hopefully will be prevented. Mark Allman and I also deal with this prong under the rubric of jus post bellum in our work.

All of this does not render an easy or clear-cut judgment about the current situation in Libya (or in Bahrain, Yemen, Sudan, etc.), but I hope it provides better context and understanding about what the UN is seeking to implement with R2P.