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Obama, John Paul II and the duty of humanitarian intervention

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President Barack Obama listens to remarks during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in the Main Hall of Oslo City Hall in Oslo (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Many people have already commented on the theological content of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

I was struck by this section, which seems to echo an idea of John Paul II (who was given a nod elsewhere in the speech):

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.

In the 1990s John Paul II argued that the international community had a “duty” of “humanitarian intervention”.

In an address to the International Nutrition Conference in 1992 he said:

[T]he idea is maturing within the international community that humanitarian action, far from being the right of the strongest, must be inspired by the conviction that intervention, or even interference when objective situations require it, is a response to a moral obligation to come to the aid of individuals, peoples or ethnic groups whose fundamental right to nutrition has been denied to the point of threatening their existence.

He returned to this point in his World Day of Peace message in the year 2000 he said:

In every case, in the face of such tragic and complex situations and contrary to all alleged ‘reasons’ of war, there is a need to affirm the preeminent value of humanitarian law and the consequent duty to guarantee the right to humanitarian aid to suffering civilians and refugees.

The recognition of these rights and their effective implementation must not be allowed to depend on the interests of any of the parties in conflict. On the contrary, there is a duty to identify all the means, institutional or otherwise, which can best serve in a practical way to meet humanitarian objectives. The moral and political legitimacy of these rights is in fact based on the principle that the good of the human person comes before all else and stands above all human institutions.

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Written by Luke Coppen

December 11, 2009 at 1:49 pm

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