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The Pope and the "responsibility to protect"

On the fourth day of his visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI today visited the UN and spoke before the General Assembly. His speech in particular drew attention to the role of human rights, underlining that – in his view – they were God-given and thus unchanging. It was obviously meant to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although his speech was heavy on theology and legal philosophy, leaving out any concrete reference to specific countries/examples of human rights violations, there were some remarks that really (!) caught my interest due to their close connection to a specific topic of public international law, namely the “responsibility to protect” (we reported on a similar subject a short while ago). Here are some excerpts of the Pope’s speech; read and enjoy (emphasis added; the full text can be found here): 

Recognition of the unity of the human family, and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect. This has only recently been defined, but it was already present implicitly at the origins of the United Nations, and is now increasingly characteristic of its activity. Every State has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made. If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments. The action of the international community and of its institutions, provided that it respects the principles the underlie international order, should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty. On the contrary, it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage. What is needed is a deeper search for ways of pre-empting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue, and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliation.

The principle of “responsibility to protect” was considered by the ancient ius gentium as the foundation of every action taken by those in government with regard to the governed: at the time when the concept of national sovereign States was first developing, the Dominican Friar Francisco de Vitoria, rightly considered as a precursor of the idea of the United Nations, described this responsibility as an aspect of natural reason shared by all nations, and the result of an international order whose task it was to regulate relations between peoples. Now, as then, this principle has to invoke the idea of the person as image of the Creator, the desire for the absolute and the essence of freedom. The founding of the United Nations, we all know, coincided with earth-shaking upheavals that humanity suffered when the reference to the meaning of transcendence and natural reason was abandoned, and in consequence, freedom and human dignity were grossly violated. When this happens, it threatens the objective foundations of the values inspiring and governing the international order and it undermines the cogent and inviolable principles formulated and consolidated by the United Nations. In the face of new and insistent challenges, it would be a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining “common ground,” minimal in content and weak in its effect.

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