The Jewish roots of a human rights doctrine for worldby sue fishkoff
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Nations have a duty to protect their borders and provide security for their citizens. That’s Poli Sci 101. But a relatively new doctrine holds that nations also have the duty to protect citizens of other countries from abuse by their own governments — a notion that has its roots in the Holocaust.
I learned that recently at a World Affairs Council conversation between Michael Abramowitz, director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Richard Williamson, former presidential envoy to Sudan. Their session, called “Preventing Genocide: Do We Have the Responsibility to Protect?” focused on a relatively new international protocol known as R2P, or “responsibility to protect,” which was adopted unanimously by U.N. member states at a world summit in 2005.
R2P states that nations must protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity, and that if any government fails to do so — or in fact abuses its own people — the world community not only has the right but the duty to step in.
Which is exactly what the world community did not do during the Holocaust. And that’s why the genocide center was created, Abramowitz told the San Francisco audience — to make its prevention a global priority.
“Our museum is a living memorial to the victims of the Holocaust,” he said. “The most important thing we can do is do what we can to ensure that these crimes do not happen again.”
The American Jewish community does a pretty good job speaking out against injustice. On Sudan, Abramowitz said, American Jews were out in front 10 years ago when they correctly and publicly called the atrocities taking place in that country “genocide.” Williamson agreed, adding that Jewish community pressure helped galvanize world opinion on Darfur, which led to action.
“There’s a resonance in the Jewish community because of the experience they were forced to go through [in the Holocaust],” he told me later. “The Jewish community continues to have a disproportionate voice.”
It’s one thing, however, to talk about individuals taking a moral stand against human rights abuses, and quite another matter for one nation to invade another country’s sovereign space in the name of preventing atrocities. What gives them the right?
That notion is a very recent development, barely 20 years old, in fact. Allen S. Weiner, director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law at Stanford University, told me that the concept began to take shape after World II, with the emergence of the international human rights movement. But the first time it was enforced was after the Gulf War of the early ’90s, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein went back to oppressing ethnic minorities in his country and the international community created a “no-fly” zone over Iraq to punish him.
The R2P doctrine may only be imposed by force after diplomacy has failed, and only with approval of the U.N. Security Council. That’s why President Obama’s recent threat of a U.S. missile strike against Syria was so troublesome, Weiner explained: “Where the Security Council has not authorized the use of force, as with Syria, may a nation take action on its own?”
So, what does Judaism say about this? “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others” is the Jewish twist on what Christians know as the Golden Rule. It is much less proactive than the latter, prescribing negative action — what one should not do — rather than acting to protect someone from harm.
But there’s plenty of proactive legislation elsewhere in the Torah and later Jewish tradition, notably the injunction to take care of widows, orphans and strangers — in other words, a responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
How can a nation assume this personal moral responsibility? And who decides when it should kick into action? It’s mighty complex, and far from foolproof. But the alternative — doing nothing while innocent people die — is heartbreaking.
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