Pope Benedict did not venture into the minefield of specifics -- and more to the point, specific nations-when he spoke Friday at the United Nations about human rights and their violators. None of us can be sure which countries the pope had in mind when he spoke about "the principle of the responsibility to protect" - a topic that has been much discussed in recent years in human rights and humanitarian circles. However, to anyone who has followed, say, the long and often sad story of the international community's slow, laggardly response to the situation in Darfur, the pope's remarks bear scrutiny.
After stating a clear and defining principle that 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," Benedict went on to say that 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."
Any action, the pope argued, so long as it "respects the principles the underlie international order, should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty." He concluded: "On the contrary, it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage."
In short, the international community has a legally sanctioned duty to do something in the face of, say, acts of gross human rights violations (read: genocide) and that the duty to protect can override what have long been thought to be the impenetrable walls of state sovereignty. Of course what that "something" (action) might look like-military intervention? "peace-keeping"? -wasn't clear, though Benedict went on to say that humanity needs to do more in finding "ways of pre-empting and managing conflicts by exploring every possible diplomatic avenue, and giving attention and encouragement to even the faintest sign of dialogue or desire for reconciliation."
A reference to Darfur? Iraq? Iran? Rwanda? Tibet? Colombia? Afghanistan? We can't be sure. But it was nice to hear one of the world's most prominent religious leaders remind the UN of the international responsibility to protect those victimized by gross acts of violence, often state-sanctioned.