The campaign of strikes by NATO forces against Gaddafi’s Libyan regime has come to an end. The operation initially helped avert the mass slaughter of civilians that Gaddafi had promised, particularly in the rebel-held city of Benghazi. It continued for seven months and was only terminated once the rebel forces had successfully overthrown Gaddafi’s regime.
The intervention in Libya has been fiercely condemned by some who argue that NATO’s actions exceeded the mandate provided by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1973 and that it blurred the line between civilian protection and regime change. Others have commended the intervention as an exemplary application of the concept of the “responsibility to protect,” commonly known as R2P. While I tend to agree with the latter, I do not wish to get into the specifics of this particular intervention—though I would note that the measures authorized by Resolution 1973 were much more expansive than NATO’s critics seem to think, and I would also note that I am not really sure how NATO could have carried out its mandate to protect civilians without ensuring that Gaddafi was removed from power, given that he had declared that he would “cleanse Libya house by house” of the “rats” and “cockroaches” who protested against his rule.
But rather than closely analysing the Libyan intervention here, I want to briefly outline the concept of R2P and then offer some reasons as to why, as Christians, we might embrace it.
So, what is R2P? In brief, it is a concept which acknowledges that the primary or default responsibility for the protection of civilians from mass atrocities lies with the sovereign state in which these people live, but insists that a secondary or residual responsibility to protect them lies with the broader international society of states in instances where the host state is unable or unwilling to provide this protection. The range of actions that the society of states might take to ensure the protection of civilians is said to range from encouraging and assisting states, to pressuring them, to even forcibly intervening in their sovereign affairs—as was the case in Libya.
The R2P concept was first articulated in 2001 by an international commission, sponsored by the Canadian government, which was seeking to generate agreement on how the world should respond the next time a tragedy like the Rwandan genocide of 1994 loomed on the horizon. The concept was unanimously endorsed by states at the UN World Summit in 2005. In the years since then, the concept has rapidly taken a prominent place in international debates about how to ensure the protection of populations from mass atrocities in many parts of the world including Darfur, Kenya, Georgia, Myanmar, Gaza, Sri Lanka, the Congo, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, and several states caught up in the “Arab Spring” of 2011, including Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
R2P is not only about the use of force, but it is about the use of force. It suggests that the society of states should seek to help individual states to protect their own populations and, where necessary, use diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means to ensure that populations are protected. But it does insist that, in those tragic instances where civilians face the threat of mass atrocities and their government will not consent to external assistance or be amenable to external pressure, the society of states has a responsibility to take collective military action, where appropriate, to protect civilians.
It is this aspect of the concept that makes many people uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I think there are good reasons for Christians to cautiously embrace it.
Let us put aside for one moment the question of military force and briefly consider why it is that we have a duty to protect the vulnerable beyond our own states. After all, it is sometimes suggested that duties owed to the vulnerable are appropriately limited by sovereign borders. I think there are good reasons to reject this suggestion.
The Old and New Testaments both outline clear and demanding duties for the protection of the weak, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. We are commanded not only to refrain from doing harm to others but also to protect others from harm. (See, among many passages, Psalm 82:3-4, Proverbs 31:8-9, Jeremiah 22:3, Matthew 25:31-46, and 1 John 3:16-17.)
Certainly, some priority is given in the New Testament to the care of family (1 Timothy 5:8) and the care of those who belong to the community of believers (Galatians 6:10). In the Old Testament too, the vulnerable who Israel was called to protect were typically those living amongst them, though it is worth noting that this included aliens or refugees who were not necessarily fellow believers (Deuteronomy 10:19).
However, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), I think Jesus makes clear that we are bound to assist anyone in need, whomever they are and wherever they are from. He insists that the command to love our neighbours as ourselves is not limited to family or the community of believers or fellow nationals. The duty to care for others is not limited to those we know or to those for whom we feel affinity. Our neighbour is anyone who needs our mercy and care.
Christian thinkers, like Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, applied these ideas to their domestic contexts. They developed the idea of the “order of love,” suggesting that, in caring for others, we should give some priority to those closest to us. However, they also insisted that the most important criterion for determining the requirements of justice and charity is the degree of need. We are bound to show mercy to everyone, and our mercy ought to flow most generously to those in greatest and most urgent need.
Over subsequent centuries, as the sovereign state began to develop, Christians began to deliberate whether duties to protect the vulnerable extended beyond territorial borders. Referring to the Parable of the Good Samaritan and other passages of Scripture, many of them concluded that they did. Influential Catholic scholastics and Protestant natural law theorists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, argued that, while we should give some priority to the care of those within our borders, we are also bound to alleviate the grave suffering of those beyond our borders if we are in a position to do so.
I sometimes think that I agree with the extreme “cosmopolitan” argument, which asserts that sovereign boundaries are “morally irrelevant” when it comes to protecting the vulnerable. At other times, I worry that this argument underestimates the moral value of political community. But we do not need to accept the extreme cosmopolitan position in order to conclude that we have duties to protect the vulnerable beyond our borders. We can accept, as Christians long have, that we ought to give priority to those close to us while insisting that we should also seek to care for the vulnerable beyond our borders in cases of great and urgent need if we can do so without excessive cost. Here we don’t have space to consider what might constitute “excessive cost,” but it would seem reasonable to suggest that powerful and wealthy states should limit their pursuit of domestic objectives at least to some degree in order to carry out their global obligations.
What about the more troubling question of whether these global obligations should at times involve the resort to military force?
A good place to start is Augustine of Hippo. In his famous City of God, written in the fourth century, the theologian suggested that the resort to military force is always lamentable, but occasionally obligatory:
But the wise man, they say, will wage just wars. Surely, if he remembers that he is a human being, he will rather lament the fact that he is faced with the necessity of waging just wars; for if they were not just, he would not have to engage in them, and consequently there would be no wars for a wise man. For it is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the duty of waging wars.
Augustine believed that war is always a terrible thing but is sometimes necessary in order to restrain injustice. I think this is a helpful way of thinking about the military intervention aspect of R2P. The resort to military force to protect civilians is never to be celebrated or glorified, but it is occasionally something that we are bound to do.
It should be acknowledged that the wars that Augustine seems to have had in mind were primarily wars of self-defence. He did not discuss the idea of waging war to protect civilians beyond the state. However, there is a rich tradition of Christian thinking that asserts that such wars are justifiable. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, again, Catholic scholastics and Protestant natural law theorists developed a range of arguments in favour of the use of force to rescue the vulnerable subjects of tyrants.
To my mind, the most compelling formulations offered in this period were those that were accompanied by firm caveats and warnings against the danger of abuse. Influential theorists, such as Bartolome de Las Casas and Samuel Pufendorf, emphasized that the rights of communities to govern themselves ought to be respected and that arguments for war should not be hypocritically applied by powerful states pursuing their own selfish interests against the weak, particularly in the recently discovered New World. They warned that arguments for intervention too loosely made could lead to the proliferation of war and an increase, rather than a decrease, in suffering. Yet they accepted that military intervention in defence of victims of tyranny could at times be necessary.
The UN reports and international agreements which outline R2P today are similarly cautious in their endorsement of the use of force. They recognize the moral value of the rights of sovereign states to self-government and non-interference. They insist that interference in sovereign affairs must be authorized by the Security Council (thus implicitly rejecting unauthorized abuses of the concept such as was witnessed in Iraq 2003 and Georgia 2008). They restrict the scope of the concept to particularly shocking crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Yet they insist that there may be rare and tragic situations in which the society of states needs to contemplate putting to one side the sovereign right of non-intervention and intervening to rescue the vulnerable.
Accepting this idea in no way circumvents the need to engage in serious debate about the justifiability of the use of force in a given situation. Just as the ideas of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theorists were too often put to work to justify terrible atrocities against populations in the New World, so too are arguments for resorting to force too often misapplied applied by states today.
Christians will continue to have to wrestle with difficult questions about the need to resort to military force to protect the vulnerable from tyranny, and they will continue to have important things to say about such questions to political authorities, just as they have for many centuries. We are well served by considering the merits of a particular case against the criteria of a “just war” that have been developing since Augustine’s time. We can be guided by not only the question of whether a cause is just, but also by questions about the probability of success, the proportionality of the response, the intentions of the intervening states, and whether they are authorized to intervene.
What the concept of R2P does is reframe these just war criteria: we do not seek to determine where war is permissible but where it is lamentably necessary. Modern just war theorizing has tended to ask when and where there is a right to wage war to protect the vulnerable. The crucial contribution of R2P is to insist, as Augustine did, that if the resort to war is ever just, it is not merely permissible but a solemn duty.