The Common Good
December 2006

A Responsibility to Protect

by Rose Marie Berger | December 2006

Is military intervention the only way?


A wide spectrum of religious leaders are calling for an end to the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, where more than 400,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced since 2003. While more than 3.5 million people are completely reliant on international aid for survival, aid workers have been threatened and attacked—more than a dozen have been killed since June.

Evangelical Christians have been on the forefront of advocacy around Darfur. Sojourners and the Save Darfur Coalition launched Evangelicals for Darfur in October, calling on President Bush to use his influence with the U.N. Security Council to support “deployment of a strong U.N. peacekeeping force and multilateral economic sanctions.”

We know the atrocities taking place in Darfur, and thus are compelled to act. But we must also have eyes wide open as to what we are advocating and what the consequences may be.

“Humanitarian intervention” has been one of the most controversial foreign policy issues of the last 15 years. The 1993 humanitarian mission debacle in Somalia led world leaders to hesitate from interceding in Rwanda in 1994. Shame over the Rwandan killing fields prompted a need to “do something” in Kosovo in 1999—but the decision to prioritize “force protection” over civilian protection resulted in a “humanitarian” war with huge civilian casualties. The Bush administration also reverted to a “humanitarian causes” rationale for invading Iraq (along with the infamous—and elusive—“weapons of mass destruction”). The most recent report indicates that 426,369 to 793,663 civilians have been killed since the U.S. intervened in March 2003. “Humanitarian wars,” wrote international law expert Eric A. Posner, “will rarely yield humanitarian results.”

Religious leaders want the U.N. to make good on Resolution 1706, which passed in August, authorizing an expanded multinational peacekeeping force of up to 20,000 troops and civilian police to relieve the underfunded and ill-equipped African Union contingent. Sudan’s president has refused U.N. intervention. While world leaders are rightly cautious of a full-scale nonconsensual military intervention, they cannot allow the government in Khartoum to stymie them into inaction.

In order for U.N. peacekeepers to be successful in Darfur, many experts say that more than 20,000 troops are needed, and for command and control reasons they need to be independent of, not blended with, the African Union troops. In addition to a monitoring function, U.N. peacekeepers are “authorized to use all necessary means” to protect themselves, aid workers, and civilians. This means using violence to fight violence, which usually leads to more violence and makes securing long-term peace nearly impossible.

Christians whose sense of “prophetic responsibility,” as John Howard Yoder put it, won’t let them withdraw from the world and “whose sense of sin and knowledge of historical reality” makes them skeptical of human progress must wade into the murky depths of these issues without many answers in sight. We must make decisions and respond to evil in the world from within the biblical paradox that commands us at once to “not repay anyone evil for evil” (Romans 12:17-21) and also calls us to intervene on behalf of the least of these. When one supports a “strong U.N. peacekeeping force,” it must be done with full knowledge of the practical and theological consequences.

WHAT OTHER EFFECTIVE actions can we support alongside or instead of the armed option? First, we can applaud President Bush for signing into law the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act of 2006 and issuing an executive order for targeted sanctions against the government in Khartoum while limiting the effect of sanctions on Sudanese civilians. Imposing a travel ban and freezing the assets of top Sudanese regime leaders, including investigating their off-shore accounts, would also get their attention.

Second, according to the International Crisis Group, there is a rising opposition within the ranks of the Khartoum government and a burgeoning independent media that is critical of that government’s policies. What can we do to support those efforts?

Third, in October the United Nations launched its first all-female peacekeeping unit. Darfur, where gender-based violence predominates, would be a strategic starting place for getting women peacekeepers on the ground.

Finally, it is time to establish an international police force that could strategically intervene under a civilian protection model. Yoder concluded that the policing function of the state can fit the prescriptions of New Testament teaching in that it can distinguish the guilty from the innocent and preserve order, whereas war cannot.

The R2P (“responsibility to protect”) Coalition, an independent think-tank based in Chicago, has proposed an international marshals service dedicated to the enforcement of a judicial response to crimes against humanity. Currently, the international community has little leverage over the perpetrators of mass atrocities. In Darfur, a marshals service “would provide a clear deterrent for Sudanese leaders to engage in crimes against humanity,” international lawyer Juliette Voinov Kohler told Sojourners.

As Christians, we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). In the case of Darfur, we act on our limited human understanding and throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners associate editor, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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