Beliefnet
Pontifications

No, not an incursion into the Middle East. Neither the Vatican, nor the Pope (current or past), nor the bishops, nor church teaching or tradition supported the American invasion of Iraq. But when President Bush, the author of that terrible tragedy, meets his new BFF, Pope Benedict XVI, in the Vatican later this week, the pope may want to bring up another idea: Invading Myanmar, aka Burma.
This would not be an attempt to overthrow the oppressive regime, but rather a humanitarian intervention under the rubric of the “responsibility to protect.” (How bad is it in the wake of May’s cyclone? Check out this TNR piece by Alvaro Vargas Llosa.) France’s foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, raised the intervention idea last month as the toll of death and misery sparked by the terrible cyclone was transformed into a catastrophe by the intransigence of the brutal Myanmar regime, which would not open its doors to international relief. As a New York Times story relates,

In 2005, the United Nations recognized the “responsibility to protect” doctrine when governments could not or would not protect their citizens, even if this meant intervention that violated national sovereignty. But it has been rarely applied.

The doctrine grew out of the West’s sense of guilt from our collective inaction in the 1990s over the ethnic cleansings in the Balkans and Rwanda, to take two prime examples. The French under Mitterand were a lone voice for action in Serbia and Croatia, just as they led the opposition to the 2003 Iraq misadventure. Now the Sarkozy government is proposing intervention in Myanmar. Time to give the French their due?
If giving Paris props is too much to bear, then how about the pope? One of the many overlooked (because they were overly-complex) passages from Benedict’s speeches in America in April was this central appeal from his address to the United Nations:

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 its institutions, provided that it respects the principles undergirding the 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…When faced with new and insistent challenges, it is a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining “common ground”, minimal in content and weak in its effect.

Powerful stuff. Benedict traced the history of the principle of the “responsibility to protect” back to the first great theologian of international law, the sixteenth-century Dominican Friar Francisco de Vitoria, and he wraps it in his favored principles of human dignity and natural law. A strong editorial from the Jesuit weekly America also lays out the case for intervention.
Unfortunately, the moral standing of the United States in the wake of the Iraq debacle makes it difficult to make such an argument, and the responsibility would fall largely to the Europeans, who have been far too passive when we have been far too assertive. Moreover, if any papal-presidential conversation along these lines does take place in the Apostolic Palace, it will likely be in private, as Benedict has shown no willingness to pressure Bush, whom he apparently likes, on issues about which they disagree. That wouldn’t be sad. It’d be tragic. Let’s pray for a different outcome.

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