The international community's responsibility to protect endangered populations when their governments fail to do so, and church support for protective measures, has been the subject of lively debate at a World Council of Churches (WCC) workshop at the 20-25 January World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya.
The "responsibility to protect" is an emerging, but controversial, international standard. Although the concept recognizes that the primary responsibility to provide for the safety of their people lies with national governments, it also acknowledges that when there is a clear failure to carry that responsibility out, it is the international community's duty to override sovereignity and intervene in the internal affairs of the faulty state in the interests and safety of those in peril.
"At certain times, resorting to force is necessary," said Mr Ernie Regehr, former director and co-founder of Project Ploughshares, a Canadian Council of Churches agency working with churches, governments and non-governmental organizations to build peace, prevent war and promote the peaceful resolution of political conflict.
But the use of force - which should come only when prevention has failed - has to be temporary, restrained, accompanied by humanitarian intervention and in the framework of peace-building efforts. "It's is not about regime change, but protection of vulnerable people in immediate peril of grave human rights violations," Regehr emphasized.
Other faith groups, such as Christian Peacemaker Teams and non-violent conflict transformation advocates, oppose armed interventions and say that the use of 'force' tends to make things worse in the long-run. They argue that, in any event, the prority and role of the Christian community is to contribute towards overcoming violence wherever possible - even if states and authorities see no other way forward and feel, on justifiable moral grounds, that they need to interveneto counterract lethal and genocidal aggression by others.
Debate was lively at the crowded workshop. Isn't there a gap between the ideal and practice? What or who is the "international community", and how can we trust such an entity? Don't churches include both defenders and offenders when it comes to human rights? Isn't there the risk of legitimating crimes?
Regehr stressed the international community's lack of moral and political will to protect the vulnerable. "It is a tragic reality that, all too often, the international community does not accept its 'responsibility' to protect, but only the 'option' to protect when it suits their interests," he said.
The risky character of the concept was acknowledged by Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat from Kenya, a former moderator of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.
But, "What other better option is available in cases like the Rwandan genocide or in relation to the current plight of the children of northern Uganda where, over the last twenty years, thousands of young children have been kidnapped, tortured, raped, and killed by anti-government rebels?" he asked.
The Rev Shirley DeWolf, from Zimbabwe, a WCC/CCIA member, pointed out that if a church is not living up to its duty towards a population in serious danger whose government is not protecting it, then the "international church" should fraternally call that church to order, she suggested. The international church should call the individual church to stick to agreed moral principles. "We have not been doing enough of this, we have not been outraged enough," DeWolf said.
"The church can fail, sometimes spectacularly," Regehr recognized. "But it still is a resource for good that needs to be fully mobilized."