Responsibility to Protect in the Just War Tradition: The Ethics of Preventing and Responding to Human Rights Violations

Alexander, Laura, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Childress, James, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

How can human rights be most adequately protected? What do those who hold power and authority owe to people who have less – often very little – power, and to the political communities in which they all participate, especially regarding the protection of basic human rights?

To address these questions, this project examines Responsibility to Protect as an extension and enrichment of the just war tradition of thought. Responsibility to Protect is an emerging global norm, adopted by all member nations of the United Nations in 2005. By agreeing to its terms, political authorities acknowledge and are held to a responsibility to protect the basic human rights of all people against the worst violations: genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. I argue that contemporary thinkers, political leaders, and citizens can best understand and address issues of human rights protection – particularly, but not only, related to the use of military force – by placing Responsibility to Protect and just war thinking in a position of mutual critique.

Responsibility to Protect arose out of the late-1990s debates over humanitarian intervention to protect human rights. It seeks to move past any supposed contradiction between human rights protection and respect for the sovereignty of nation-states by including in the definition of sovereignty a responsibility to protect the human rights of the population governed. In crafting this discursive framework, the developers of R2P engaged and expanded upon ongoing discussions over the nature and responsibilities of sovereignty in the contemporary world. In particular, they influenced the way global leaders and analysts think about justice in war. Responsibility to Protect clarifies that protection of human rights against the very worst abuses can serve as a just cause to go to war, and I argue that application of Responsibility to Protect benefits immensely from the use of just war criteria to guide judgments about whether and how forceful measures ought to be used in the cause of rights protection. Applying just war criteria and principles to the often-troubling questions that arise when military action is considered as a possible means to uphold the responsibility to protect provides global leaders with a morally-sound basis for decision-making about whether and how to use force to protect rights.

At the same time that it benefits from a connection to the moral principles of the just war tradition, Responsibility to Protect enhances that tradition. I argue that its focus on the prevention of human rights violations expands the scope of just war thinking and pushes us to think about human rights protection in the context of broader obligations of political sovereigns to their, and sometimes other, communities. I draw on the work of Christian ethicists Jean Porter, Oliver O’Donovan, and James Turner Johnson to examine how several crucial obligations of sovereign rulers relate to human rights protection. These obligations are, specifically, to deliberate and promote deliberation that leads to fair and transparent laws; to fully and properly represent all people in a political community; and to work to discern and uphold a common good, where the use of force is understood as one possible, though certainly not the only or even the preferred, means of promoting the good.

Responsibility to Protect has further potential to deepen our understanding of sovereign obligations and how they may be fulfilled, based on its emphasis on protecting the human rights of all people, especially those who are most vulnerable to attack and violation. Attending to the rights of all includes recognizing and working to alleviate injustices and harmful power dynamics within and between political communities. It also means undertaking humanitarian actions that respect the agency of less-powerful people and communities and do not simply impose on others even the well-intentioned humanitarian concerns of powerful states. I argue that such work requires listening to those who are poor: attending to their expressed needs, taking counsel from them when situations arise in which rights violations seem likely, and building relationships between people who have great power and those who have very little. To examine sovereign obligations of listening and building political relationships, I draw on liberationist and feminist thinkers, both Christian ethicists and political theorists. I then turn to discussions within peacebuilding literature and examples of peacebuilding practices, which show how obligations to listen to the oppressed and build relationships might be fulfilled and point to instances when fulfilling these obligations has prevented or stopped human rights violations.

In summary, reading Responsibility to Protect together with the just war tradition of thought, and placing them in mutual critique, enhances moral clarity on contemporary conflict and potentially improves the protection of human rights for all. It does so by providing moral guidance when force is used for humanitarian ends, holding sovereigns accountable for basic obligations to their people, encouraging the building of relationships between and within political communities, and seeking ever more effective practices through which rights violations can be prevented by peaceful means.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
responsibility to protect, just war, ethics, Christian ethics, liberation theology, feminist ethics, international relations, human rights
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