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Hem / Featured / A ‘Responsibility to Protect’ against the persecution and genocide on Christians – Humanitarian intervention based on Just War doctrine appropriate and possible?

A ‘Responsibility to Protect’ against the persecution and genocide on Christians – Humanitarian intervention based on Just War doctrine appropriate and possible?


FörföljelseFängelseFor several years the World has received increasing news of horrific summary executions, beheadings, slaughter and killings, expulsion and mass displacement, persecution and torture, slavery and trafficking, forced conversions, enforced conscription to commit suicide bombings, rapes and sexual violence, abductions, and other savage attacks on members of Christian communities and other religious minorities, including attacks on religious sanctuaries in particular in the Middle East. We share the suffering with the victims and families of terrorist attacks not only in conflict stricken countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya, or in remote states as China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, and Argentina but also in our European neighbours like France. The increasing persecutions and martyrdoms of many Christians in the world has been assessed as genocide by Msgr. Silvano Tomasi, Archbishop and Vatican permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva – in 2014 alone,  4,000 Christians lost their lives.

This article aims at drawing attention to these alarming threats and assaults on human dignity and human security, identifying the Catholic Church’s doctrine as well as the Church leaders’ responses to address the plight of the suffering of Christians, indicating appropriate measures and actions to be taken to protect and guide the way forward.

The following questions will be addressed: 1) What are the Catholic Church’s teachings on the persecution of Christians? 2) Which measures have been appealed for by the Pope and Church leaders to stop these persecutions in our times and is the Catholic Church just war doctrine a measure endorsed by the Church in this particular situation? 3) Which are the available options under the Principle of a Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) to be employed to stop these atrocities?

The memorandum will take as a starting point the Papal encyclicas and other relevant authoritative catholic social doctrine documents and examine whether and how the problem of persecution of Christians, as inter alia a violation of the freedom of religion and the right to life, has been addressed in our times. Furthermore, the most recent Papal and Vatican actions of various kinds on this particular issue, such as speeches, statements, prayers, homilies, and interventions in the United Nations (UN) on this situation will be revised to answer the abovementioned questions. In the analysis on the available and appropriate measures to stop the atrocities, the contemporary international debate on the application of the RtoP on religious minorities in the Middle East will be commented on.

The Catholic Social Doctrine on obligations for the protection of civilians and just war

The two latest Papal encyclas on Catholic Social Doctrine, Laudato Si (2015) by Pope Francis, and Caritas in Veritate (2009) by Pope Benedict XVI, does unfortunately not mention the current humanitarian situation for Christians nor displays any teaching on the subject. One must take into account that the emerging humanitarian situation for Christians commenced after the increase of IS attacks in June 2014 and that the production and publication of a Papal encyclical sometimes demands years in time. Pope Francis has however stated that that the “Church today is a Church of martyrs”, and that the level of persecutions and martyrdoms of Christians in our time supersede that of the first Centuries. The Church’s social teachings on the violations of the freedom of religion and the right to life may have to be sought in earlier documents. The teachings of the early Church will be of important value for the discernment.

The early Church took a purely pacifist stance during the great persecutions including the non-use of force in the protection of innocent from unjust aggression. The teachings and life of Christ was that of turning the other cheek (Matt 5:38-39), the refusal to use violence for his own defence in Gethsemane (Matt 26:52-54) and suffering the consequences with his martyrdom in accordance with the scriptures and prophecies. Jesus stated to Peter: “Put your sword back, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52). Also John the Baptist answered to the question of the soldiers on what they shall do: “Do violence to no man, neither calumniate and man; and be content with your pay” (Luk 3:14).

But from the 4th Century and onwards, beginning with Saint Augustine, the tradition of the Church has endorsed limited, proportional and controlled forms of violence and war and under certain criteria for the defence of innocent civilians and the prevention of further injury and evil, when all peaceful measures have been exhausted with the purpose of bringing peace and justice – so called just wars.

The encyclicas of modern times generally assume an endorsement of the just war doctrine, developed by the Church throughout history, but without any detailed treatment, while the Catholic Catechism briefly restates the main criteria for just wars. Once such use of force has begun the principles and rules of humanitarian law and the laws of war must be complied with, entailing for example the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks, and the principles of distinction between civilian and military targets and the proportionality in the use of force.

Responses and appeals of Pope Franciscus, the Vatican and Catholic Church leaders

In August 2014, Pope Francis expressed its concern and spiritual closeness to the  intolerable suffering on the tragic situation in Northern Iraq and urgently appealed in a letter to Ban Ki-Moon, for the international community to take action to end the humanitarian tragedy underway, including by all competent United Nations (UN) organs responsible for security, humanitarian law and assistance to refugees, to continue their efforts through the norms and mechanisms of international law, and “to do all it can to stop and prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities”.

In November the same year the Vatican representative to the UN, Archbishop Auza, stated that it is time for courageous decisions to protect defenceless religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, and called, on behalf of the Holy See, the competent organs of the UN to act to prevent possible new massacres, and to re-enforce the international juridical framework for the RtoP people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and all forms of unjust aggression. This violence is, according to the Holy See, blatant violations of the fundamental human rights. Auza reiterated the call by Pope Francis to all religious leaders to take a leading role in promoting interreligious and intercultural dialogue, in promptly denouncing every misuse of religion to justify violent extremism, and in educating all in reciprocal understanding and mutual respect.

In March 2015, the top Vatican diplomat Msgr Tomasi informed the UN about the Vatican view that the use of force may be necessary to stop attacks on Christians and other Middle East minorities by Islamic State (IS), if no political solution is found. Moreover, he explained that there has been a long process of systematic discrimination and destruction of religious minorities in this region for 100 to 150 years, and that it is caused by a negative structural attitude towards religious and cultural plurality. At the spring meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, Msgr Tomasi stressed on each state’s RtoP its citizens but also in the solidarity of the international community, and called on increased humanitarian aid, dialogue and negotiations for a cease-fire, and the moral duty and RtoP religious minorities in order to achieve a sustainable solution where fundamental human rights are respected. He also expressed hope that the high price paid with the many Christian martyrdoms would lead to reconciliation. One important measure which the Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop in Bagdad, Msgr. Shlemon Warduni, called for in May 2015 is to stop the export of arms to Iraq and IS.

In August this year, Pope Francis called again, in his letters to the Jordanian Patriark Maroun Laham and the Latin Patriark of Jerusalem, Fouald Twal, on the international community to not remain indifferent and silent, but to be more attentive, sensitive and sympathizing with the hundreds of thousands of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East being victims of religious fanatism and intolerance. He expressed his solidarity and compassion with the Iraqi refugees in Jordan as Christian martyrs, and thanked them for their testimony of Christ. By the end of August, Pope Francis reiterated his appeal to the international community to do something to stop all violence and assaults on Christians.

According to Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, USCCB president, “Pope Francis and the Holy See have reiterated on a number of occasions that it is ‘licit’ to use force to stop these unjust aggressors and to protect religious minorities and civilians from these horrendous attacks”, but the U.S. Bishops have underlined that “[w]hile military action may be necessary, it is by no means sufficient to deal with this terrorist threat.” They have furthermore stated that the use of military force by the U.S. must be proportionate and discriminate, and employed within the framework of international and humanitarian law.

It is thus quite clear that the Pope, the Vatican and many Church leaders are open to applying the just war doctrine for the protection of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East – if no other measures remain effective. How have these strong appeals from the Church in the recent year been responded to by the international community and which measures and actions remain available to stop the mass atrocities?

Responses by the international community and the principle of the Responsibility to Protect

The Security Council, the UN organ mandated to maintain international peace and security, held a day-long debate on 27 March 2015 about the victims of attacks and abuses on ethnic or religious grounds in the Middle East. Ban Ki-Moon strongly condemned the persecution and violations of the rights to life and physical integrity of individuals and communities based on religious or other grounds, and information presented strongly suggested that several actors including the Da’esh, also called the IS, has perpetrated genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and that minorities in the Middle East have been victims of that violence.

In a statement on the situation in Syria made on 12 June 2015, the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect, Jennifer Welsh, the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Rita Izsák, and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, reiterated their concern about the on-going threat to the safety of minority groups in Syria, and recalled the commitment by all Heads of State and Government at the 2005 World Summit to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and to cooperate in fulfilling their collective RtoP with timely and decisive measures through the Security Council (pillar III of the RtoP):

“The protection of the populations in the Syrian Arab Republic is the primary responsibility of the Syrian state. However, in face of the State’s failure to do so, and with a situation of continued attacks against civilians by all parties to the conflict, the international community – and in particular the Security Council – has the responsibility to take timely and decisive action to protect populations in Syria.”

As much of the attacks and violations of religious minorities in the Middle East have been considered to amount to grave crimes in international law, the quasi-legal international principle of the RtoP is now being referred to by various actors demanding stronger measures for protection. For example, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect stresses on the need for the UN Security Council to take proximate steps to end atrocities in Syria, including imposing an arms embargo and referring the situation to the ICC, and demanding states participating in airstrikes against ISIL to ensure all necessary precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties and uphold international humanitarian law.

While the term RtoP was not used directly in authorizing airstrikes in Iraq, the action taken by the U.S. and others was requested by the Iraqi Government, and done, at least in part, with the intent of preventing an imminent genocidal threat to civilians, according to the International Coalition on the Responsibility to Protect. Also, non-military measures for protection that are being taken include financial and logistical assistance, and dialogue and mediation assistance to help Iraqis overcome divisive issues obscuring the path to reconciliation.

Due to the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and to combat ethnic and religious violence and promote pluralism in the Middle East, an international conference was held in Paris on September 8, as a follow-up to the UN Security Council Open Debate in March. The French and Jordanian Ministers of Foreign Affairs hosted representatives from appr. 60 states, which agreed on an action plan to support religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria who are being persecuted by the Islamic State and other extremist groups. The detailed content of the action plan is still unknown to the public, and we may only speculate on the issue of humanitarian intervention.

For the Security Council to take stronger measures, including the use of military force to protect (e.g. establishing safe havens and no-fly zones), Russia needs to be convinced to join such decisions in the Council and not cast a veto. The scenario appears unrealistic to expect a decision to deploy a humanitarian intervention operation with the current political climate in the Council. While a decision on a humanitarian intervention operation is taking its time, a small Christian militia has been formed in the northern part of Iraq, the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit, to protect the threatened Christians in that area. This force however is small and non-professional, and must be considered as an insufficient measure of protection.

Comments and final remarks

The available measures under the principle of RtoP are manifold and there are other forms of military protection under Pillar II, that could theoretically be resorted to in the absence of a Security Council authorized humanitarian intervention (under Chapter VII of the UN Charter) under Pillar III. A uni- or multilateral consent-based peace-keeping force by invitation of the host state (Chapter VI½ of the UN Charter) or undertaken by a regional organisation (Chapter VIII of the UN Charter) are forms of protection operations that may be discussed with a host state short of consensus for a stronger UN enforcement operation. Thirdly, the General Assembly may also recommend peace-keeping operations under the Uniting for Peace Procedure when consent of the host state is present. Thus, the legal basis for consensual peace-keeping operations under Pillar II of the RtoP can involve any of these above mentioned legal mechanisms.

The political reality and security situations in Iraq, Syria and other conflict afflicted states in the Middle East may be difficult to reconcile with state consent and initiatives for such peace-keeping forces, especially if there is no peace to keep in the first place. The Just War principles of reasonable chances/probability of success and that an intervention creates less evils than those already present, may be also be difficult to comply with. More violence in an already violent and unstable region may cause more harm than good. Furthermore, compliance is also difficult and severely undermined with regard to humanitarian law, in particular the principle of distinction between military and civilian targets and the identification of legitimate military targets, when terrorist groups and networks blend among the civilian population. There appears to be several reasons for caution that inhibit military measures for protection.

This very recent statement made by Pope Francis on 7 September may give some consoling words to our worries in the midst of the current crisis:

“Dear brothers and sisters, there is no Christianity without persecution. Remember the last of the Beatitudes: when they bring you into the synagogues, and persecute you, revile you, this is the fate of a Christian. Today too, this happens before the whole world, with the complicit silence of many powerful leaders who could stop it. We are facing this Christian fate: go on the same path of Jesus.” … May the Lord, today, make us feel within the body of the Church, the love for our martyrs and also our vocation to martyrdom.”

Diana Amneus, juris doktor


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