The Responsibility to Protect: Quakers and Genocide

As I sit writing this article, I hold in my hand a full-page ad placed by the Save Darfur Coalition with a message for President George W. Bush. It might as well be addressed to the many Friends and Friends organizations who struggle to answer the same question: Over a scorched desert landscape filled with dozens of fresh graves the ad pleads, "When all the bodies have been buried in Darfur, how will history judge us?" How indeed?

Following my retirement from the Quaker UN Office in New York a year and a half ago, I have been posing a similar question to a number of individual Friends and staff of Friends organizations struggling with a perceived inadequacy in many of our responses to genocide and other such massive violations of human rights. My goal has been to identify the dilemmas Friends face and to locate our witness when the killing starts. What, I asked, is our best contribution then?

While I focused on genocidal situations like Darfur and the earlier killing in Rwanda and Bosnia, I made it clear that responding to genocide is not the only challenge we face, nor is it necessarily at the top of our individual and corporate pyramids of concerns. Hunger and poverty kill more each year than war crimes, but for many of us, "stopping the killing" tears at our consciences in ways that are agonizing and perplexing. Many of our responses appear inadequate and even morally compromising. The either/or choice presented to us seems to be that of supporting calls for military intervention or doing nothing, sitting on our hands when we’re not wringing them.

The results of these discussions with key individuals and groups of staff members here in North America as well as Europe and the Middle East were, on the whole, encouraging and often inspiring. Confronting genocide is not a new issue for Friends, and important aspects of the dilemmas we face reconciling our desire to stop the killing with adherence to our testimonies have arisen in recent years. Many readers will know this from their participation in such recent deliberations as Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas’ Friends Witness in a Time of Crisis Conference at Guilford College in 2003, with a subsequent book by that title published in 2005, and the book published by Friends Journal in 2006, Answering Terror: Responses to War and Peace after 9/11. Pendle Hill and FCNL, among others, have undertaken serious efforts as well to engage their constituencies in debate, and individual Friends, most notably Alan Pleydell of Quaker Peace and Social Witness in Britain, Diana Francis of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, and Gianne Broughton of American Friends Service Committee/Canadian Friends Service Committee, have written movingly and wisely in ways that push our thinking
forward. And Friends are not alone: Mennonites and Brethren, along with the World Council of Churches, have convened high-level gatherings to discern their own responses.

All of my discussions quickly came up against the problems we face as Friends, as pacifists, when conflicts shift from the less violent pre-conflict stage to active violence and genocide. Friends are generally comfortable with the roles we take in trying to defuse such conflicts before they become extreme as well as in the stage of conflict that follows when the killing has stopped, that of post-conflict peace-building. It is when peaceful options seem to fall away that we are most acutely aware of the difficulties of continuing to act in ways that are meaningful to those who are the targets of such violence.

Again, Friends and proponents of nonviolence are not the only ones found wanting when widespread violence erupts and governments are unable or unwilling to protect their own citizens. Indeed the weak, sometimes non-existent efforts of governments and intergovernmental bodies like NATO and the UN have been at the heart of the critics’ argument that states have been too "risk averse" over and over again to intervene in timely fashion, from the Balkans to Darfur, choosing hypocritical measures that give the appearance of action, barely, leaving victims to their fates.

The demand for more "robust" intervention to stop genocide grew throughout the ’90s. The call was led by outraged journalists like David Rieff and Michael Ignatieff reporting from the scene, and the example of Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who was the Canadian head of the UN token peacekeeping operation in Rwanda, author of Shaking Hands with the Devil, and seen in the movie Hotel Rwanda. While the initial calls for "humanitarian intervention" focused almost solely on calls for military intervention, the impulse to intervene eventually grew into a much more nuanced and yet passionate call for the adoption of a new "international norm" called "The Responsibility to Protect" or R2P.

Still, in my view, the proposal for R2P remains as one of the most significant moral and political movements in our time and one of the most promising, when combined with efforts to abolish war-fighting as an acceptable means to resolve human conflicts. There’s no substitute for reading the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) that provides the single most explicit and compelling argument for R2P, and readers are urged to read it in its entirety at the Canadian government site

The heart of R2P is "the question of when, if ever, it is appropriate for states to take coercive—and in particular military—action against another state for the purpose of protecting people at risk in the other state." It answers by proposing what it calls a "new approach: a Responsibility to Protect" and a broadened threefold sequence of responsibility: First, a responsibility to prevent, then a responsibility to react, and finally, a responsibility to rebuild. Unlike the earlier calls for humanitarian intervention, R2P places a strong emphasis on and preference for preventive interventions in the hope such early action will stop any escalation of violence and make more coercive, military action unnecessary. Indeed, prevention is described in the "Core Principles" of R2P as the "single most important dimension of the responsibility to protect."

Critics of R2P, and there are many, fall into holders of one of two polarized, mirror image suspicions. Many in the Global South fear that any broadening or loosening of restrictions on interference in the domestic affairs of member states will provide one more rationalization for powerful states to intervene in developing states for less than truly humanitarian reasons, while some in the Global North suspect that such arguments are being used with some success by major abusers among developed states to avoid any form of accountability or sanction of their own human rights abuses. The result has been an impasse at the UN in the implementation of the "responsibility to protect" it adopted in the World Summit Message of 2005.

Do Friends fit into the R2P picture? My sense is that while some Friends are persuaded such a responsibility to intervene should be opposed as an inherent support for the use of armed force, many others, including most of those I interviewed, found much to support in R2P along with several important reservations.

While most Friends are relatively comfortable with the broadening of ideas of "state sovereignty" to include what Kofi Annan has called "individual sovereignty," i.e. the rights provided in the International Declaration of Human Rights, and are ready to see at least some forms of intervention used when states are unwilling or unable to protect their own citizens, the provision of a right to or requirement to intervene militarily in the "last resort" runs two dangers. First, it is likely that the "last resort" requirement to intervene militarily can be misused by nations determined to have their own way, the U.S. in Iraq being a living example. Proponents of R2P have seriously and sincerely sought to fence in such efforts to exploit it through reference to Just War criteria, but there is scant evidence that such criteria have ever prevented or even restrained war. And second, while many Friends will support the emphasis on the "responsibility to prevent," as it puts the emphasis where Friend’s "core practices" are most readily deployed, there is a "creedal" feel to the insistence that something, in this case, military intervention, must be brought into play when certain conditions are met. The inclusion of a threat of military intervention may undermine the efforts of states to "prevent" conflict through early and non-military, even non-violent, initiatives to preclude violence.

Is there a way for Friends to embrace the moral authority of the call for a Responsibility to Protect as an international norm and address some of the reservations identified above?

I find two analogies useful here. First, there is the famous distinction of George Fox in his letter to Cromwell between Friends refusal to bear arms against anyone for any reason and his apparent support for the rightful role of magistrates in exercising their duties to maintain public order—"the magistrate bears not the sword in vain"—acknowledging the need for coercive force in some situations. And second, there is a more recent analogy developed by Alan Pleydell of Quaker Peace and Social Witness in London that many of us have found helpful in thinking about R2P—that of the development of child protection law. It used to be, and still is in many places, that cases of domestic violence against children, as well as women, could not be touched because of legal and social conventions that decreed that what went on behind the closed doors of a household, a family, was a private matter. Yet, step by step, the interpretation of law as it applied to families changed. The idea of the sovereign inviolability of the family (i.e., male rights) gives way to one of the primacy of the rights and interests of the child.

R2P, the reasoning goes, is directly analogous to the responsibility of parents to feed, nurture, protect, and develop their children. The purpose of child protection law is not to throw more people in prison, but to "expand the space for the acceptance of help"—from friends, social workers, and so on—to restore emotional balance within the family. The paradox, he points out, is "that the earlier and less official the intervention—and the more it is understood as fundamentally friendly—the more likely it is to be received without protest or forceful resistance." But in the end, the society, the state, has the right to intervene forcefully to protect the rights of the child, even using the ultimate sanction of breaking up the family.

The distinction in Fox’s letter of separating one form of coercion from another—in effect the idea of policing from that of war-fighting—along with the support given for some forms of coercive intervention in protecting a broader interpretation of human rights, provides some interesting ground on which to stand in the face of genocide.

Are Friends prepared to embrace a modus vivendi with international intervention that includes boycotts, sanctions, divestment, and more "robust" peacekeeping missions that rely less on the neutrality of "blue helmets" than those that turn "khaki"?

Increasingly the UN is under pressure to intervene in violent conflicts for which it is largely unprepared. The most salient impact of R2P in calling for military intervention in the "last resort" is that UN peacekeeping will be called upon to shift from traditional "blue helmet" peacekeeping operations where there is a peace to keep (policing ceasefires, truces, and negotiated peace agreements) to that of "peace enforcement" in the midst of violent conflict where there is no peace to keep.

My sense is that Friends are shifting in their view of UN peacekeeping and are increasingly prepared to support deployments for the purpose of enforcing peace when there is no peace, i.e., somewhat more militarized peacekeeping operations—for example, the current small AU force in Darfur and the proposed larger UN force for the purpose of protecting vulnerable populations.

Friends could support the shift of UN peacekeeping from the traditional blue helmeted operations to the somewhat more militarized enforcement missions, but work alongside them, or perhaps within them, to emphasize the "policing" roles of such deployments rather than the "war-fighting" roles envisioned by some.

As traditional peacekeeping evolved, it depended very little on its military trappings for its success, but rather developed an impressive array of non-violent approaches to solving problems that became its mainstay. So it may be with peace enforcement, if undertaken in the spirit of policing. A few Mennonite activists and academics, for example, are actively exploring the idea of "Just Policing" as a means of providing protection while avoiding violence. Perhaps we should join them in their consideration.

If there is a line, and I believe there is, it lies in making a distinction between coercion and violence, between policing and war-fighting. Such a distinction is based less on opposition to coercion and the use of force than it is on drawing the line at the use of lethal violence and armed military intervention as a means of imposing solutions—even those that genuinely seek to protect vulnerable peoples. It is a distinction that requires a robust response to genocide within our capacities.

Does such a line exist? If it does it puts us on a difficult and sometimes ambiguous path. Indeed our most important role may be that of "holding" the dilemmas to give time and space for their eventual resolution on the basis of new insights and—well—revelation.

Jack T. Patterson

Jack T. Patterson, a member of Shrewsbury (N.J.) Meeting, formerly served as a Quaker representative to the United Nations in New York, and now sells antique rural Irish furniture. This article grew out of his work as a consultant to AFSC on Friends response to genocide.