World stands idly by as terrorists wreak havoc in Iraq

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September 8, 2014

Again the world has been impotent in the face of a major humanitarian crisis, this time in the area of northeastern Iraq controlled by Islamic State terrorists. Although nations have deplored the massacres and other forms of terrorism of the ISIS militants, little has been done beyond U.S. bombing raids.

Those raids are themselves morally problematic as they are unilateral actions by one nation, rather than a coherent response from the global community.

The current crisis calls to mind similar outbreaks of terror in Syria, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. It also points to the need for a standing UN-sponsored peacekeeping force, able to respond quickly to attempt to halt widespread terror wherever and whenever it breaks out.

The promotion of peace and the end to war is of vital concern to the Church because peace is a sign of God's love for every human being. The Church, however, as Stalin cynically observed, keeps no army. It offers instead prayer, diplomacy, material aid and moral guidance that express its desire for a world where peace reigns and human rights are observed.

To that, Pope Francis has added the brave offer to travel to the war zone if it would help end the violence. The pope has also said it is morally licit to stop the aggressor, emphasizing the word "stop" and showing great hesitation about bombing or other acts of war to curtail the violence.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church proclaims that the international community has a moral obligation to intervene on behalf of groups whose basic rights are being seriously violated. "As members of an international community, states cannot remain indifferent; on the contrary, if all other available means should prove ineffective, 'it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor,'" it says, quoting Pope St. John Paul II (506).

In a recent interview, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican representative to the UN agencies in Geneva, spelled out the conditions for a morally acceptable humanitarian intervention. Armed intervention "must not be unilateral, but internationally recognized. All other means – dialogue, negotiations – for protecting the innocent must be exhausted; and real assistance for those whose rights are being trampled must be provided," he said.

Insisting on such conditions may seem to erect too high a moral fence before humanitarian intervention is allowed. Valuable time may be wasted before meaningful action is taken.

The main problem in the recent past, however, has not been excessive concern for morality; it has been the cold-hearted refusal to take any action at all in the face of overwhelming evidence of massacres of innocent people. Too many nations, including Canada, have been satisfied with issuing moral condemnations while refusing to launch common initiatives that would protect people's lives.