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Diplomacy by Other Means October 22, 2001

Editorial by Philip F. Lawler

It comes as no surprise when the Pontiff speaks in favor of peace, and when Pope John Paul II released his annual message for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, most media stories dutifully reported that he had condemned modern warfare. But a careful reading of the Pope's address uncovers a much more challenging theme. While the Holy Father is certainly not a warmonger, he did not condemn the use of military force under all circumstances. On the contrary, he introduced a new--and extremely problematical--development in the theory of a just and limited war.


Although it was released to the press in mid-December, the Pope's statement was officially dated January 1. On the first day of the new millennium, then, the Holy Father looked back across the history of a century, which will go down in history for its brutality:

In the century we are leaving behind, humanity has been sorely tried by an endless and horrifying sequence of wars, conflicts, genocides, and "ethnic cleansings" which have caused unspeakable suffering: millions and millions of victims, families, and countries destroyed, an ocean of refugees, misery, hunger, disease, underdevelopment, and the loss of immense resources. At the root of so much suffering there lies a logic of supremacy fueled by the desire to dominate and exploit others, by ideologies of power or totalitarian utopias, by crazed nationalisms or ancient tribal hatreds. At times brutal and systematic violence, aimed at the very extermination or enslavement of entire peoples and regions, has had to be countered by armed resistance.

The 20th century bequeaths to us above all else a warning: wars are often the cause of further wars because they fuel deep hatreds, create situations of injustice and trample upon people's dignity and rights. Wars generally do not resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore, in addition to causing horrendous damage, they prove ultimately futile. War is a defeat for humanity. [Emphasis in original]

These are, beyond question, the words of a peacemaker. But notice that the Pope's condemnation of totalitarian ideology is absolute, while his condemnation of warfare is conditional. Wars, he tells, us "are often the cause of further wars," and "generally do not resolve the problems…." [emphasis added]


Are there, then, times when warfare might be the best available option? "At times," John Paul tells us, "brutal and systematic violence… has had to be countered by armed resistance." [emphasis added]

Is the Pope saying that an oppressed people may take up arms to resist an unjust government? No; actually he is saying more than that. Later in the same message, he says: "Crimes against humanity cannot be considered as internal affairs of a nation."

On that basis, the Holy Father asserts a right--and perhaps even a duty--to engage in "humanitarian intervention." When a government systematically oppresses its people, he argues, world leaders should take action. What sort of action should they take? Naturally, the Pope argues first in favor of mediation, negotiation, and diplomacy. But if such efforts prove fruitless, he is not ready to give up the cause. He writes:

Clearly, when a civilian population risks being overcome by the attacks of an unjust aggressor and political efforts and non-violent defense prove to be of no avail, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor.


Obviously, to "disarm the aggressor"--who does not want to disarm--will require some use of force. How much force can be used justifiably? And who has the authority to use that force? Pope John Paul does not provide specific answers to those questions.

The Pope does argue that any "humanitarian intervention" should have strictly limited objectives, and be subject to the guidance of international law. These are the familiar requirements of the just-war theory. For centuries, Catholic moralists have taught that a just war is, by definition, a limited war, subject to the constraints of international law. But international law has never acknowledged a right to "humanitarian intervention" in the affairs of a sovereign state. If such intervention is indeed morally justified, several new questions arise:

o In whose name can the "international community" take action? Pope John Paul welcomes the prospect of an International Criminal Court, which could try the cases of human-rights offenders. But the Vatican was barely able to forestall efforts to classify bans on abortion as violations of human rights. Is the Church ready to accept the UN's leadership in such matters?

o The Holy See has repeatedly condemned the use of international embargoes as a means of disciplining rogue regimes. But if diplomatic efforts are unavailing, and trade sanctions are proscribed, is there any other way to bring an outlaw regime into line with universal moral standards, short of armed intervention?

o What action should the "international community" take when a government that systematically violates human rights is so powerful that armed intervention would be doomed--as, arguably, in the case of China? We do not presume to know the answers to all these questions. But we would welcome the discussion.

- Philip F. Lawler