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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Humanitarian Protection and the "Responsibility to Protect"


Event Recap

The Boisi Center’s first event of the academic year 2010-2011 brought three distinguished panelists—David Hollenbach, S.J., Mahmood Mamdani, and Alan Wolfe—together before a packed auditorium for a vigorous debate about the international human rights regime and the emerging paradigm of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P).

The panel began with an overview of R2P by Fr. Hollenbach, University Professor of Human Rights and International Justice, and director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College. A prominent human rights advocate and expert on refugee issues, Hollenbach outlined R2P’s origins early this decade, and described its key principles: every nation-state has a responsibility to protect the human rights of its citizens; but when that responsibility is abdicated or willfully violated in cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, other states have a responsibility to intervene. Though state sovereignty (and its claims to non-intervention) is in principle subordinate to human rights, Hollenbach said, the actual cases that require military intervention are quite rare.  R2P is thus best understood as a responsibility on the part of a state not to inflict harm on its citizens and, more positively, as a responsibility on the part of citizens to build up institutions that secure human rights.

Mahmood Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University, then took the podium to offer a very different perspective. A native of Uganda, Mamdani specializes in the study of African history and politics, and has written extensively on colonialism, genocide and human rights. He noted that R2P has its roots in the colonialist ambitions of Western powers to dominate Africa, and it is this context, not the slogans of “humanitarianism,” that should guide our thinking about its value. In fact, Mamdani argued, we should reject R2P’s conception of Africans as passive recipients of charity and victims of corruption, and embrace instead a robust notion of citizenship, deeply rooted in political affiliation to sovereign states, that promotes active participation in authentically African political life. Only this stance will allow African nations to focus on their many internal problems without unwanted foreign intervention.

Alan Wolfe followed Mamdani’s presentation with a strong critique of one of the best-known humanitarian movements in America, the Save Darfur campaign. Wolfe called the campaign a well-intentioned “mistake” that oversimplified an enormously complex situation and actually made things worse, for three reasons. First, the organization cast the conflict as one between Arabs and (black) Africans, an oversimplification that also reinforced anti-Muslim prejudices. Second, it overstated the total number killed in the conflict in an effort to build support, but inadvertantly created a kind of “genocide exhaustion.” Third, the campaign falsely bred hope on the ground in Darfur that help was coming and, by calling for a no-fly zone and castigating Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, even prevented aid from reaching refugees.

In the heated Q&A that followed, Hollenbach castigated Mamdani for ignoring the basic responsibility to stop human suffering that underlies R2P. Mamdani clarified that while he did not reject the concept of human rights as such, we must first focus on the context of human wrongs, which will only be corrected by political reconciliation, not abstract universal principles. Wolfe added an appeal to Americans to learn more about the complexities of a situation before supporting intervention. Challenging questions came from the state director of the Save Darfur campaign, a Ugandan theology professor, an undergraduate international studies major, and several others.