"Never Again"
The Responsibility to Protect as an Emerging Ethical Norm
Tobias Winright

Brian Steidle, a former US Marine captain who served in Kosovo and now a human rights activist, journalist, and photographer, shared the following two experiences from the time he served as a monitor for the African Union in the Darfur region of western Sudan:

Ahmed and I headed toward a large nim tree on the outskirts of Wash al tool, where 250 homeless women and children had stopped earlier in the day to share in the small piece of shade. They had escaped the initial conflict in Alliet, a town of 15,000 we had just visited. The village was the most recent to fall prey to Government of Sudan troops in what was now described by Western diplomats—publicly, if belatedly—as genocide….

Expressionless, a woman slowly raised a one-year-old girl for me to examine…

The baby’s breathing was labored, and she was wheezing noticeably. Upon closer inspection, I realized that this tiny human being had been shot in the back—the child had gaping entry and exit wounds that accentuated her struggle to breathe. Her guardian looked up at me with a blank gaze.

“What’s her name?” I stammered, my sense of disbelief audible in my tone.

“Mihad Hamid,” she said after a quick translation of my question. (xi)

…In Baraka, 10 villagers had been tortured and brutally murdered by the Janjaweed…. Several bloody corpses filled a shallow grave. They were lined up in a row and covered with grass mats. Images from the Holocaust and Rwanda filled my mind. I looked closer. Every single man in this countless row of African civilians had had his eyes plucked out and his ears cut off. (88)

The title of Steidle’s book, The Devil Came on Horseback, refers to the Janjaweed, a paramilitary faction in Darfur that has been accused of alleged genocidal acts in recent years. As the father of two very young daughters, I hope others share my indignation about such horrific acts committed against civilians anywhere, including babies like Mihad Hamid.

In the wake of the Holocaust, the international community pledged “Never again,” and a new international norm, “the responsibility to protect” (R2P), has emerged as the latest expression of this vow. R2P was endorsed by President George W. Bush, who said, “I want to fix Sudan and stop the slaughter” (quoted in Woodward 2010, 53). President Barack Obama appealed to it last year in connection with Libya, and R2P is explicitly mentioned and endorsed in his National Security Strategy published a year earlier in a section on “Peacekeeping and Armed Conflict” (National Security Strategy 2010, especially at 48). The United Nations invoked R2P in Resolution 1973 concerning Libya, and today R2P is the moral norm framing the debate about what to do about Syria. Still, most Americans seem unfamiliar with R2P. What is it? How did it emerge? Moreover, how does it cohere, if at all, with the traditional approaches—pacifism and just war—that Christians have used to think about the morality of war?


 During the 1990s, although the international community at times felt morally compelled to intervene in nations where crimes against humanity, such as genocide, were underway, the legality of such humanitarian interventions was in question. Ever since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, national sovereignty has been regarded as sacrosanct, and the normative principle of non-interference prohibited nations from meddling in the internal affairs of other nations. The jurisprudential question about humanitarian intervention became especially apparent when NATO forces intervened in Kosovo—an action that seemed at the time morally, if not legally, justified.

In 2000, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked member states: “If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica—to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”  (Annan 2000, 48). In response, to find a way to protect innocents such as baby Mihad Hamid, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, an initiative of the Canadian government, issued a report titled “The Responsibility to Protect” in 2001. The UN subsequently studied this proposal, and at the 2005 World Summit, over 150 heads of state unanimously adopted 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 General Assembly resolution in July 2009 (A/RES/63/308) committed the body to more discussion of R2P. Although debate in the international public square continues, R2P is undeniably gaining acceptance as we journey into this second decade of the twenty-first century.

Gareth Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia, believes that R2P provides a “new way of talking about the whole issue of humanitarian intervention” (2005, 5). It nuances and qualifies the concept of national sovereignty so that it entails not only a right to non-interference from other nations but also responsibilities on a nation’s part to its own citizens. If a state fails to fulfill its primary duty to protect its own citizens, this responsibility then transfers to the international community. The focus, as German Evangelical Church theologian and former World Council of Churches (WCC) General Secretary Konrad Raiser puts it, is less on national security and more on “the human security of all people everywhere,” and especially of those most at risk (Raiser 2005, 11; see also Axworthy 2012, 3, 8–11).

R2P consists of three pillars: 1) the responsibility of the state to protect its population from four crimes—genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing; 2) the responsibility of the international community to assist states in meeting their protective responsibility; and 3) the responsibility of member states to respond in a timely and decisive manner when a state fails to provide such protection. The international assistance and response in the second and third pillars involve, moreover, three primary responsibilities: 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).

While R2P is gaining traction in the international community, it is not without its critics. There are, of course, those in the realist school of international relations who still uphold the absolute inviolability of national sovereignty. Others, especially those from former European colonies in the southern hemisphere, worry that R2P is a Trojan horse for Western efforts to regain or maintain global hegemony. Nevertheless, overall support for R2P seems to be increasing in the international community.

What about the churches? What has their response been so far to R2P? The WCC, which is comprised of 349 Christian churches and denominations, has affirmed and reaffirmed R2P in a number of resolutions since 2003. Furthermore, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned R2P in his address to the General Assembly of the UN on 18 April 2008 and called for its implementation in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, issued on 29 June 2009.

This moral advocacy of R2P by Christian churches, however, has not come without debate. Christians who emphasize nonviolence remain reluctant to express their support for the use of force even to protect the vulnerable. According to the WCC’s 2006 statement that affirmed R2P: “The use of force for humanitarian purposes is a controversial issue…. While some believe that the resort to force must not be avoided when it can alleviate or stop large-scale human rights violations, others can only support intervention by creative, non-violent means.”

Some—including members of the historic peace churches—have suggested that viewing R2P as a form of policing rather than a military action might offer an avenue beyond this impasse. For example, Mennonite Ernie Regehr writes, “Just as individuals and communities in stable and affluent societies are able in emergencies to call on armed police to come to their aid when they experience unusual or extraordinary threats of violence or attack, churches recognize that people in much more perilous circumstances should have access to protectors” (2005, 105).

In fact, few Christian ethicists have thought or written about the ethics of law enforcement. Therefore, before drawing parallels between R2P and policing, careful consideration must first be given to the ethics of policing. Simply invoking an analogy with the police is insufficient, for surely not all policing is ethical. No Christian ethicist or church would defend the morality of totalitarian oppression by a police state or the excessive force and police brutality associated, for instance, with the famous Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Some in the historic peace churches object that policing is still about violence and thus no more moral than war-fighting (for example, Alexis-Baker 2007 and 2008). In fact, several models of policing exist, with some (e.g., the crime fighter or military model) that see the use of force as central and others (e.g., just policing or community policing) that see the use of force as more limited and governed by strict criteria. If R2P resembles just policing, then most Christian churches should support this emerging norm as a way to “serve and protect” innocent neighbors like baby Mihad Hamid. For the international community, R2P may be an altruistic implementation of the vow “never again.” For the Christian community, it is an expression of neighbor love.

The Methodist ethicist Paul Ramsey used to argue that “the logic, the heart and soul, of…protective love” is the basis for the Christian just-war tradition (1988, 72). Referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan who showed love for the man earlier victimized by bandits, Ramsey asked what Jesus would have suggested the Samaritan do “if he had come upon the scene while the robbers were still at their fell work?” (1968, 142–43). For Ramsey, whenever a choice must be made between the unjust perpetrator and the innocent victim, circumstances dictate that the latter is to be preferred, so that armed force may be justifiably used against the former.

Not all pacifist Christians will accept R2P’s provision for forceful intervention. They argue that more emphasis should be placed on the responsibility to prevent; however, nonviolent preventive measures often come too late or fail. Hugo Slim shares the story of the Liberian village of Bakedo, a mostly Muslim community of Mandingo people of traders and farmers in West Africa. In June 1990, a massacre happened in the mosque nestled in the town’s center:

After launching their successful insurgency from Côte d’Ivoire further to the east, Charles Taylor’s NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) forces burst into Lofa County. On that June day, people were farming and going about their business as usual when news came that armed fighters were on their way to the village. The town’s elders met quickly and agreed to meet the soldiers in a spirit of peace with an offering of two cows and some money as a token of their hospitality. Sure enough, a little later that day, two pick-up trucks full of armed NPFL men drove fast into town, led by a woman commander. Most of the soldiers quickly fanned out to surround the town and block routes out of it. Others pushed the villagers’ reception committee into the “palava hut” near the mosque and forced them to lie on the floor. The minds of the soldiers were made up and their orders were clear. After taking some drugs and dancing around, they got serious. The commander shouted at the cowering people in the “palava hut” and said: “You, together with your belongings, belong to us. We will kill you because you are Mandingo people, strangers and not citizens. So we will kill all of you on this land.” The soldiers then opened fire on everyone in the hut, immediately killing 36 people—men, women and children—at point blank range. (Slim, 9–10)

As people fled for their lives, the soldiers continued shooting. Surviving villagers estimated that 350 people were killed during that half-hour massacre. What should Christians who are called to be like the Good Samaritan do when a crime such as this is happening? While much can be done to prevent such dreadful scenarios from happening in the first place, limited force is sometimes necessary to put a stop to horrific crimes that are already underway against the innocent. Although there are, admittedly, many problems still to be worked out with R2P, this emerging norm is a step in the right direction.


Tobias Winright is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Saint Louis University and has previous experience in law enforcement. In 2007 he served as an expert consultant on the responsibility to protect for the World Council of Churches, and he recently co-edited Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred: “They Shall Be Called Children of God” (Orbis Books, 2012).


Works Cited

Alexis-Baker, Andy. “The Gospel or a Glock? Mennonites and the Police.” Conrad Grebel Review. Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring 2007): 23–49.

Alexis-Baker, Andy. “Community, Policing, and Violence.” Conrad Grebel Review. Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring 2008): 102–116.

Anan, Kofi. ‘We the Peoples’: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century. New York: United Nations, 2000. http://www.un.org/millennium/sg/report/full.htm.

Axworthy, Lloyd. “RtoP and the Evolution of State Sovereignty.” In The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Time, Jared Genser and Irwin Cotler, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Benedict XVI. “Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations.” 18 April 2008. http://www.un.org/webcast/pdfs/Pope_speech.pdf.

Benedict XVI. Caritas in Veritate, Encyclical letter on integral human development in charity and truth, 29 June 2009. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate_en.html.

Evans, Gareth. “The Responsibility to Protect: Moving Towards a Shared Consensus.” In The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections, Semegnish Asfaw, Guillermo Kerber, and Peter Weiderud eds. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005.

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The Responsibility to Protect. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001. http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS Report.pdf.

Moon, Ban Ki. Implementing the Responsibility to Protect. New York: United Nations General Assembly, 12 January 2009.

National Security Strategy of the United States. Washington, DC: The White House, 2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf.

Raiser, Konrad. “The Ethics of Protection.” In The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections, Semegnish Asfaw, Guillermo Kerber, and Peter Weiderud, eds. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005.

Ramsey, Paul. Speak Up for Just War or Pacifism: A Critique of the United Methodist Bishops’ Letter “In Defense of Creation. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.

Ramsey, Paul. The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility. New York: Charles Scribners and Sons, 1968.

Regehr, Ernie. “Comments from Ernie Regehr.” In The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections, Semegnish Asfaw, Guillermo Kerber, and Peter Weiderud, eds. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005.

Slim, Hugo. Killing Civilians: Method, Madness, and Morality in War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Stidle, Brian. The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur. New York: PublicAffairs/Perseus Books Group, 2007.

Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

World Council of Churches. The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections. Geneva, 2003. (Report to the WCC Central Committee from the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, July 2003, http://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/central-committee/geneva-2003/the-responsibility-to-protect-ethical-and-theological-reflections.html.)

World Council of Churches. Vulnerable populations at risk. Statement on the responsibility to protect. Geneva, 2006. (Resolution adopted by the General Assembly, 22 February 2006, Porto Alegre, Brazil. http://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/assembly/porto-alegre-2006/1-statements-documents-adopted/international-affairs/report-from-the-public-issues-committee/responsibility-to-protect.html

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