Does government have any ethical responsibilities, or is a ruler’s will sufficient to legitimate a regime?
This is the question posed by Col. Gaddafi’s current challenge to the people of Libya that he and he alone deserves to rule them.
There can only be one answer among civilized people: government has ethical responsibilities that transcend and constrain the will of the ruler or the ruling class.
Public power is constituted for the public good; it is not a private dominion; it is not private property to be defended against all intruders and rival claimants as if it were an incarnation of personal dignity and moral purpose.
Government is a public trust; rulers are trustees for the benefit of those under their authority.
When government abuses its trust, it must lose its legitimacy. When it loses its legitimacy, it must leave office.
Public protests, as we have seen recently in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and, most violently, in Libya, are a form of impeachment of those in office. In a successful impeachment, office is taken from the hands of those in power and given to others more fit to rule.
An accusation of abuse of power due to following self-interest can be launched by popular protest. The burden of proof that the government has been and will continue to be faithful to its trust falls upon the rulers. If they cannot sustain their burden, they should lose office – peacefully, in a velvet revolution, or violently if they resist change.
The ethical responsibility of governments is called for by the Caux Round Table’s Principles for Government. Application of these Principles to Col. Gaddafi’s government leads to the conclusion that he has lost his legitimacy.
Therefore, his position is that of a warlord or contender for power in a civil war, not that of a legitimate leader of a state. His government should not be recognized by other states as the sovereign power over Libya.
One test of a government’s fulfillment of its trust is whether it must use force against its people. The use of force is a prima-facie argument that its legitimacy is in question and that the quality of its trusteeship is in serious doubt.
Violence and war are but politics through other, far more deadly, means. When they are put to use without the sanction of law, politics has been transcended by willfulness. Resort to force implies that the government needs to impose subordination when a steward of a trust is precluded from imposing self-seeking terms on the beneficiaries of the trust.
This rule of ethical responsibility for governments is also the case under many principles of International Law. A new norm of ethical responsibility – the responsibility to protect – has been adopted by the international community. If a government fails to protect the people under its care, it loses its right to unquestioned management of the internal affairs of that society, which becomes, in ethical terms, a society without a government. Others who can assume the responsibility to protect may intervene to offer that protection to the innocent victims of abusive rule.
There is a principle in human affairs higher and more important than sovereignty. It is service of the people. As leaders of the American Revolution said: “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
Sovereign power can be won through force and violence. Col. Gaddafi may yet triumph in blood over his people. But, that does not make the conquering power secure in legitimacy. It is still subject to opposition and revolution.
The second principle of the CRT Principles of Government holds that “Discourse ethics must be used by governments.” This standard forecloses use of violence and repression to set public policy.
Under this standard, Col. Gaddafi has failed in his trust. He is seeking to impose his personal will on Libya through repression. He may very rightly be opposed by Libyans and the international community.
Sadly, there is a human reality that ‘might can make right,’ at least for a time. Police states can be erected and they can rule in peace and order for decades. There is in the course of human self-protection a certain practical wisdom in submission to overwhelming power and repression. Opposition to a fierce regime leads to death, long imprisonment and misery for one’s family and friends.
As Thucydides reported the Athenian generals asserting when imposing their will on the people of Melos that: “The strong do what they will; the weak what they must.” Such is the experience of human history.
In the face of injustice, submission may be the only rational choice for individuals – evil though both the injustice and the submission thereto are.
And thus, we have evil in the world – brought about by human hands and sustained by human weakness. It is wrong, but, from time to time, we seem doomed to accept it and go along with its demands. But that forced acquiescence doesn’t make it right.
The question then for us is do we only curse the darkness, or do we find a way to light a candle?
The Caux Round Table believes in lighting candles wherever possible against the darkness.
As Rabbi Hillel suggested so many centuries ago: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”