Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Unbearable Lightness of the Responsibility to Protect

Robert J. Joustra


By Robert J. Joustra

July 7, 2014

As debates go in Canada’s Senate, there is usually very little in urgent need of reporting. But recently the resignation of a famous Canadian, retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire of the Canadian Forces, was occasion for his last speech in that chamber. He used it to remind Canada, and the world, that his fame as Major-General of UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) was earned in a terrible service, and he pled for a revival of the responsibility to protect.

"I wanted to bring to your attention a subject that I consider a reality. Some consider it simply a news item. It is another one amongst some of the sadder news items that go on, but those of us who have been in the field and have been in the midst of some of these conflicts, these are not news items; these are reality. We relive them. We can hear the women screaming as they are raped. We can hear the kids screaming for having lost their parents and dying of hunger. We can hear the projectiles — the rounds, the artillery, the mortars. We can hear the sound of machetes going into the flesh of human beings and listening to people as they attempt to survive if not at least die with dignity in the field. We smell what is out there. We still smell it. What goes on in these conflict zones is not foreign and should never be foreign to a great nation like ours."

As manifold atrocities afflict our world, so often the dominating cycles of our so-called news media, hope is the early casualty in the powerful nations of the world. We do not hear, and so do not imagine, the profound stories of persistence, of mercy, and of reconciliation, both religious and otherwise. We miss, scandalously, the everyday banality of the rule of law and of public justice. The terror of the evil exception causes us to feel powerless, even when, as Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros have so persuasively argued, the evidence of good, functioning, public justice abounds.

So Dallaire has to remind us that we are powerful; it’s a little demeaning, I often think, that we need to propagandize ourselves into believing in our own relevance. He goes on at length extolling the armed forces, civil society, humanitarian aid, and even government policy that has built the strategic lift to sustain forces in the middle of Africa. He does not dispense with the hard lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq and reimagine that manifest military might can reshape the world at will. It can’t. All human power has limits; some types of power are better suited for some endeavors than for others. Building such a fragile thing as a liberal democracy may be, ultimately, beyond the power of any external force, nuclear shells or no. But there are policy options between perfunctory hand wringing and total occupation.

This is what Dallaire (and many others) have called a responsibility to protect (R2P), a doctrine that calls on the international community to intervene in the face of the most extreme atrocity. In his speech, Dallaire was referring to the Central African Republic (CAR). Like all international norms, R2P is also prone to abuse-- it was invoked by Putin in his annexation of Ukrainian Crimea.

For that reason, R2P often receives ambiguous enthusiasm from Just War advocates; the criteria for its invocation seem more predicated on reactionary sentiment than long term just intervention. It can create, in other words, quite a mess. Which is why I wonder if critics of R2P couldn’t consider it a tool in the box of the long tradition of Just War, rather than the panacea. R2P may well have an “unbearable lightness,” a short and at times strategically shallow history, but this is why it should be situated within the larger tradition-- one which talks not merely about responsibilities to protect in the short term (an addendum to jus ad bellum), but also probabilities of success and conduct within (jus in bello). We must recognize that R2P will probably make a mess, but the question for a proximate justice in global politics is this: Will it be a smaller mess than the one we have right now? That may sound unsatisfying, but in the work of politics “a little better than it was” is a big win.

R2P will always be an outlier until it merges with a tradition of thicker moral reflection. Realists will accuse it of impossible idealism, and now and then they’ll be right. There are worse charges. But as a conceptual tool in the box of global politics, it is probably essential for the century ahead, even if just for our own self-interest. Responsibility is a funny word, and Dallaire will keep trying to prove that we have it. Either way, we should have a very good answer.

-  Robert J. Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

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