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The sad fate of R2P: From Libya to the lost chance of Syria

From Syria, optimistic accounts of the continued viability of the R2P norm look badly mistaken. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, R2P and the Human Rights Crisis in Syria.

Nassim Yaziji
2 July 2014

It might be promising that the former Australian foreign minister is optimistically reporting the survival of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. However, for those of us inside Syria, it is hard to share this optimism. In fact, we refer sarcastically to the doctrine as I2P – the Irresponsibility to Protect. This isn’t Eastern isolationism, but simply a description of the reality we face. Writing now and from inside Syria, it would seem the R2P doctrine is at an end; indeed, it is doubtful it ever really reached the stage of being an accepted international norm.

Proponents of R2P assume that the UN General Assembly’s endorsement of R2P in 2005 signaled its acceptance as an international norm. But, in fact, this is not the case. The 2005 UN endorsement of R2P is simply an acknowledgment of a responsibility but not a requirement that action be taken. Such endorsement is an essential first step in the process of developing binding international norms. But the recognition of the R2P doctrine must be followed by further action or measures that would establish it clearly as an international norm. Such action or measures would provide the legal ground for responsive international action under the R2P norm. Coercion in the international realm depends on the voluntary not obligatory efforts of the states to enforce the respect for international law – so mandatory responsive and forceful action to respond to mass atrocity is unlikely. Rather, it is about ensuring the legitimacy of such action when it is proposed. What is needed is a legal structure with clear criteria spelling out when R2P-based action is right and lawful; the more advanced and widely accepted this structure would be, the less it would be necessary to rely on the Security Council to apply the doctrine. 

R2P lacks this hard, legal basis that demands responsive international action, and because of that it remains a slogan at best.

In the absence of such a structure, the debate over the Security Council authorization of use of force is irrelevant as states will still act at their discretion to stop – or not – mass atrocities. It should be possible for an international coalition of states to use force under the R2P doctrine to stop mass atrocities without the authorization of the Security Council. For example, where UN reports make clear the need for action and there is a resolution by the General Assembly that requests Member States to act; and provided the coalition undertakes to report on its course of action as it unfolds.

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R2P requires a clear legal foundation to legitimize it as an international norm, writes Yaziji. Only then can decisions to intervene under the R2P doctrine be credibly shifted to other global fora, such as the halls of the UN General Assembly (left), from the chambers of the UN Security Council (right), where such decisions tend to be guided by national interests. From left: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock (All rights reserved); Yang and Yun/Flickr (Some rights reserved)

The real issue, however, is not about debates in the Security Council. States do not ‘trust’ or ‘betray’; states pursue their national interests, unless there are limits imposed and enforced by the community of states that maintain the international balance that preserves international peace and security. R2P lacks this hard, legal basis that demands responsive international action, and because of that it remains a slogan at best.

R2P may be slightly more than a mere doctrine, but it is definitely not an international legal norm, because its application or not, at least so far, has depended on the pursuit of national interests. Further, the willingness of states to take action shows selectivity in the application of R2P.  It is applied when convenient, lacking the respect that would be accorded harder international legal rules. This reality is clearly demonstrated in the Syria case.

From Libya to Syria, the lost chance

The Syria case demonstrates the fact that R2P is not an international norm as it is being ignored. Contrasting the Libya case with the Syria case makes this evident, as there have been two extremely different responses in the exact same time period.  Ironically, the international community responded to the less severe case, in Libya, and neglected, in Syria, one of the worst human rights crises in the world. This lack of forceful action to halt atrocities in Syria destroys the credibility of R2P; conversely, had action been taken it would have been important international practice to further establish the R2P norm.

Syria demanded an R2P response given the nature and scope of human rights violations committed by all parties to the conflict, widely documented in great detail by many independent sources. A genuine and determined effort by a concerned group of states to demand forceful action would have yielded results in this case, and would have overcome the political obstacles, including a threatened Russian veto. They would have needed to act with determination, with scrupulous neutrality, so as to target all those abusing human rights including the armed opposition, with prudence and rationality in designing the action to be taken, and with creativity to win acceptance – for example by referring the issue to the UN General Assembly. The latter might have used the 'Uniting for Peace Resolution' to avoid the paralysis in the Security Council.

    Further, military force would only follow attempts to use many other measures including:
  • Serious arms export embargos;
  • Outlawing and preventing the sending or facilitating of foreign combatants to Syria;
  • Pressuring states who are sponsoring the parties to the conflict;
  • Referring the situation in Syria to the ICC at the early stage, as was done in Libya;
  • Placing areas in Syria that are not under the regime's control under the mandate of the UN or at least under its supervision;
  • Holding a UN-sponsored international conference on Syria's peace and political democratic future in which all Syrian parties present their visions and practical plans;
  • Sponsoring thereafter a Syrian negotiation process based on an internationally or UN-backed platform resulting from this conference that tackles political and security affairs; and finally
  • A genuine commitment to R2P.

From Syria, surrounded by ruins, bodies and human suffering, I can only see a doomed fate for R2P as an international norm. This is not Eastern defiance in front of a dominant West, but rather Eastern realism confronting a Western false utopia with a challenging, atrocious reality.

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