Religion, Violence, and Human Rights

Protection of Human Rights as Justification for the Use of Armed Force


  • James Turner Johnson

  • Editors' Note: On January 5th, 2012, the Board of Trustees of Religious Ethics, Inc., sponsored a symposium in honor of the previous co-editors of the JRE, John Kelsay and Sumner B. Twiss. The original versions of this essay, and of the responses by Irene Oh and Sean D. Murphy that also appear in this issue, were originally presented on that occasion.

James Turner Johnson, Department of Religion, Rutgers University, 70 Lipman Drive, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8525,


Beginning with the support given by religious groups to humanitarian intervention for the protection of basic human rights in the debates of the 1990s, this essay examines the use of the human rights idea in relation to international law on armed conflict, the “Responsibility To Protect” doctrine, and the development of the idea of sovereignty associated with the “Westphalian system” of international order, identifying a dilemma: that the idea of human rights undergirds both the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states and the idea of an international responsibility for humanitarian intervention in cases of oppression. The pre-Westphalian conception of sovereignty as moral responsibility for the common good is then examined as an alternative that avoids this dilemma, and the essay concludes by suggesting that religious ethics also has other resources that, if used, may shed useful light on resolving this problem.