The challenge and usefulness of R2P in the Syrian context

Syria shows the difficulty of translating Responsibility to Protect (R2P) into action, but we must if R2P is to be more than a fancy acronym. But any military intervention must be linked to dialogue towards a political solution, and if such action proceeds without UN authorization it risks further eroding support for R2P. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, R2P and the Human Rights Crisis in Syria. Españolالعربية

Kwesi Aning Frank Okyere
12 September 2013

Collapsed buildings in Aleppo. Demotix/Halabi Lens. All rights reserved.

Syria and its unending conflict are posing challenges and difficulties to the international community and the implementation of the R2P concept. Syria has placed R2P in a state of uncertainty. The international community has so far failed to translate its responsibility from theory to practice. And this apparent failure is raising doubts in the minds of observers about the criteria for the concept’s application.

Two years after the start of the Syrian conflict, there is no hope in sight for the many civilians under siege. The revelation of over 100 000 persons killed in this conflict, 4.5 million internally displaced persons and 2million refugees seems neither to have surprised nor shocked the conscience of the international community. Two years after passing UNSC Resolution 1973 on Libya, the international appetite for another R2P intervention seems to have dwindled. Finding a resolution to the crisis has been complicated by the standoff between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, with Russia and China on one side and the US, UK and France on the other. Despite the status of R2P as a quasi-moral imperative, the current chasm between the major powers underscores the significant role that realpolitik still plays in it, and influences the politics of protection. It also accentuates the challenge of reconciling humanitarian principles with geopolitical concerns.

The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria points to estimates of 6,000 Syrians murdered monthly, and allegations of the use of chemical weapons on civilians. The international community has been a bystander in the face of these gruesome statistics. Its passivity is reminiscent of the international paralysis evident in the periods preceding genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (both of which influenced the genesis of R2P). As civilian casualties mount, it is unclear within the international community where peace will come from if indeed it does at all. Optimism for a UN-sanctioned resolution to intervene in Syria is waning.

So far, R2P’s three-pillar approach to the protection of civilians has offered no protection at all to the population in Syria. Although the Syrian state has evidently failed to protect its population from atrocities and has actively contributed to mass killings in Syria, the international community has not demonstrated an effective commitment to stopping the violence. No decisive action has yet been taken to halt the crimes perpetrated against civilians. Thus, it is quite difficult to attest to the usefulness of R2P in this context.

The Syrian case demonstrates the complexity of translating the R2P principle into action in civil wars, where responsibility for atrocities committed against the civilian population falls on both regime and rebel forces. Surprisingly, the campaign for intervention in Syria has mostly focused on the perpetrators of violence rather than the victims of war. The world remains divided into two camps: the “Assad-must-go” and “absolute-respect-for-Syria's sovereignty” factions. However, neither of these factions has so far offered solutions that would bring stability or respite to Syria. As Gareth Evans notes, without focussing on the potential victims of atrocity, the legitimacy of external intervention in domestic matters will be in doubt. The US, UK, France and EU are supporting rebel forces, while Russia is providing political and military support for the Assad regime. These entrenched ideological differences amongst members of the Security Council and have become huge obstacles to a peaceful resolution, and have further complicated efforts to set in motion an R2P agenda in the Syrian context.

There is no doubt that the implementation of R2P in Libya has influenced the apparent paralysis of the UN. While that intervention was necessary to protect civilians from mass brutality, it has fuelled debates about whether there were excesses in the principle’s application and implementation. Indeed, without clear criteria for the legitimate use of force, concerns over whether ‘regime change’ constitutes a legitimate goal of the R2P mandate are compelling. However, it would be morally wrong to let concerns about the application of R2P in Libya hinder decisive action aimed at saving lives in Syria. R2P, as stated in the World Summit Outcome document, should be implemented on a ‘case-by-case basis’.  The Syria crisis differs significantly from Libya in many crucial respects. Whereas conditions in Libya facilitated the smooth operationalisation of the UN-mandated and NATO-led intervention, Syria’s geostrategic location poses severe challenges to stability in the region. Whereas Gaddafi’s use of alarming rhetoric against unarmed protestors in the midst of the crisis attracted widespread outcry and contributed to his international isolation, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has received support from Russia, Iran, and other Arab countries. Besides, a turbulent Middle East (with Hezbollah and al Qaeda joining the fray) where the crisis can spread to neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, and a divided Arab League, have added extra layers of complexity to the crisis in Syria.

It is instructive to note the crucial role that regional organisations play in facilitating the implementation of the R2P framework. The role played by the African Union in Kenya’s post-electoral violence in 2007, and the leadership role of the Arab League in eliciting a Security Council resolution on Libya, were crucial. It would thus be essential to get the Arab League united behind any proposal to resolve the crisis in Syria.

A real attempt should be made to pursue dialogue and diplomacy in concert with a viable proposition for a military offensive. The five permanent members could intensify efforts to compel the Syrian government and opposition forces to commit to a genuine political process; if that fails, then coercive measures will more likely be seen to be legitimate.

If the R2P norm is to be useful in living up to its principles rather than remaining merely a fancy acronym, consensus must be found on an appropriate response to the Syrian civil war. Jon Western and Joshua Goldstein put it quite bluntly: “To save the doctrine, forget regime change”. R2P is a complete package. To be legitimate and effective, all three pillars must be deployed—not necessarily in a pre-determined sequence, but with each being given due consideration and pillar three (armed intervention) being employed only as a last resort. The fact that China and Russia have consistently vetoed even a feeble Security Council resolution in spite of glaring evidence of mass atrocities against civilians suggests that any prospect of coercive intervention is highly unlikely. With the UN in a protracted stalemate, the likelihood for a ‘coalition of the willing’ intervention outside the legal framework of the UN Charter cannot be completely discounted. This return to the 1990’s era of ‘humanitarian intervention’ risks undermining the existing international mechanism for maintaining peace and security. It will further erode the progress made in translating R2P from theory to practice.

Though there is limited space for political negotiations between the disputing parties, this possibility must be explored in the interest of the suffering masses. President Bashar al-Assad will have to step down sooner or later, but only a political process will facilitate a peaceful end to Syria’s escalating violence and rescue R2P from its state of uncertainty.




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