Contemporary Conflicts

Responsibility to Protect and Syria

May 21, 2013


"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." (MLK)


The international community strongly denounced the violence in Syria but so far it hasn’t been able to provide an effective framework to prevent and stop these atrocities.  The responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine - adopted in 2005 to embody the promises made by world leaders to prevent a future “Cambodia”, “Bosnia” and “Rwanda” - could neither prevent nor save Syria.  


The humanitarian situation in Syria is drastically worsening amid continued violence. Syria falls under the category of cases that R2P should deal with:


  • Both parties to the conflict are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  
  • The Syrian government is manifestly failing to protect its population from mass atrocities and war crimes, which makes the international community responsible for protection of Syrian population.
  • Increasing refugee flows, spillover effect of the sectarian conflict, non-state transnational violence require the international community to take appropriate measures to maintain regional and international peace and security in compliance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter.


In case of Syria the doctrine hasn’t been invoked yet, because substantial disagreements over R2P’s practical implementation led to a political stalemate at the UN Security Council. And it is not surprising as the doctrine in its current form was never meant to be a panacea.


First of all, R2P is a non-binding norm, not an international law. It can only be invoked by the UN Security Council and only when the interests of the five permanent members do not contradict each other. Secondly, R2P’s watered-down wording alludes to its discriminative nature: the international community is “prepared to take collective action … on a case-by-case basis ”.


The problem here is not to recognize that Syrian citizens need protection, rather define how to protect them. Even though the peaceful means seem to be exhausted, military intervention can’t be a legitimate alternative at the moment.


 The political stalemate over Syria is impeding any effective collective actions.  Also, at this point there is a strong possibility that military intervention can only make the situation in Syria worse, and can end up bringing more harm than good.


The prospects for a successful military intervention in Syria are much less promising than they were in Libya. According to the estimates of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2009 Syria’s military force was four times larger than Libya’s and it was much better equipped. Moreover, Syrian opposition is not unified, like it was in Libya; and Assad has powerful Iran behind him, whereas Qaddafi had no significant support.


Additionally, NATO, that led military intervention in Libya, categorically rejected the idea of any intervention in Syria, because it is “ethnically, politically, religiously much more complicated than Libya”.


Last but not least, military intervention in Libya had the backing of the UN Security Council, which is the only international body able to authorize it. The military intervention in Syria is lacking such backing.  Nevertheless, it was intervention in Libya that significantly worsened disagreements over practical implementation of the norm.


Some of the main dilemmas include: How to make sure that the government doesn’t return to killing its citizens after the interveners are gone? How far can interveners go to guarantee the long-term stability? Can regime change be justified?  


So, the U.S., U.K. and France want to pursue the regime change, while China and Russia object to the use of R2P to justify regime change. Separating regime change from R2P is extremely important for moving forward at this stage. In this regard, the concept of Responsibility While Protecting (RWP), proposed by Brazil in 2011 can be part of the solution. RWP calls for increased monitoring and review of R2P-related actions by the UN Security Council. If officially adopted RWP may help strike the balance between securing state’s sovereignty and preventing mass atrocities. Additional measures aimed at strengthening the monitoring capacity and improving the system of early warnings of the UN Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide could prove to be very effective provided that timely peaceful measures are also taken by the international community to prevent the mass killing.


So far R2P has not been able to put an end to all mass atrocities in the world. Nor has it provided the international community with a concrete and effective mechanism for protecting civilians in each and every case. But it is a very important norm in the sense that it states the right of civilians to be protected by the international community if the national government fails to do so. The problem with its implementation in Syria does not undermine the idea behind the norm, it rather sends a signal that there is still much more work that needs to be done in order to facilitate its practical implementation. 


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