The debates on the R2P doctrine and its application – or lack thereof – to Syria are intensifying but, it would seem, are not getting very far in achieving either consensus or clarity. Some questionable assumptions are inherent in those debates: that the international community has indeed been on a genuine search for effective ways to protect people from atrocities and unconscionable crimes; and that the major decision-makers in the Security Council -- represented by the five veto-wielding states -- can indeed provide the moral and political leadership to apply R2P effectively and objectively, without consideration of their own geopolitical and strategic interests.
Having researched perspectives on R2P in the Arab region, I have found that the issue is no less bitterly debated nor opinions less divided here, although the nuances differ. The question that lies at the heart of the issue is whether or not it is possible for morality to trump politics in a world marred by double standards and an undemocratic UN Security Council. Most civil society actors in the region would say that it cannot, although Arab human rights activists still cling to the principle of the universality of human rights and demand that it should prevail in this region as well.
Since the 1990s there have been armed conflicts in at least 9 of the 22 member countries of the League of Arab States, several of which involved the imposition of sanctions and/or foreign military interventions, civil society actors in the region have demanded protection for civilians in Palestine, Darfur, Algeria, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria, and beyond to conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya, where Muslim civilians were being attacked. Even Arab governments, who are usually staunch proponents of absolute sovereignty, occasionally support the doctrine of R2P where the lives of Arabs and Muslims are concerned, and sometimes elsewhere as well.
However, when it comes down to international decision-making, calls for protection quickly succumb to fear, suspicion and, eventually, vociferous objection to foreign intervention. One cannot overstate the deep divide between the Arab/Muslim East and the West; it has widened into a deep chasm in the past decade. Fueled by a deep distrust of the major powers’ motivations and interests, and exacerbated by daily experience, this divide colors and informs the perspectives and reactions in the region. The role of the United States is viewed with particular suspicion, given its policies towards the region over the past several decades. It is not only the endemic Palestinian-Israeli conflict and unbridled support by the US for Israel, but also the disastrous and non-UN authorized US invasion of Iraq. Further, actions taken by the US in the war on terror – Guantanamo, extraordinary renditions, drone killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen – are deeply unpopular.
As regards the occupied Palestinian territories, Israeli practices have been widely condemned for their violations of humanitarian law, including grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Yet persistent calls for protection and draft resolutions are blocked or vetoed by the US. Operation Cast Lead, launched by Israel against Gaza in December 2008, killed around 1,400 Palestinians including more than 300 children and wrought much destruction. Although the Human Rights Council established a high-level fact-finding mission that documented clear cases of war crimes (see the Goldstone Report), the US sought to discredit the report and blocked any action on its findings. Similarly, no action was taken when Israeli bombing in the summer of 2006 destroyed most of the bridges in Lebanon and entire civilian neighborhoods in Beirut and 1,200 Lebanese were killed.
It is not lost on people of the region that Israeli human rights practices are generally not on the agenda of the UN Security Council, although they are regularly debated at the Human Rights Council. The indictment by the International Criminal Court of Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir for bombing his own people in Darfur appears to many, including Arab academics and commentators as just another example of a lack of even-handedness in international and American dealings with the region, even though they hold no more respect for Al-Bashir than they did Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qadhafi. In the region, only the human rights activists and organizations hailed the indictment as a “milestone on the path towards justice for the peoples of the Arab World.”
The result is that R2P in the Arab region is debated contentiously, as elsewhere, but with a nagging sore, like that left by a thousand paper cuts caused by the volumes produced by debates and discussion within and around the UN, with little action taken. Perhaps, as Gareth Evans suggests, a full debate that weighed action in Syria in light of the criteria linked to the R2P doctrine (seriousness of harm, motive of protection, last resort, proportionality and balance of consequences) would help to ensure the proper application of R2P. But does this respond to the urgent needs for protection of the many victims in the region, most recently in Syria? Perhaps also, as David Petrasek notes, the singular focus on military interventions is part of the reason for the paralysis of R2P. But the experience in the Arab region of other measures, such as sanctions, also suggests they will fail to ensure the protection of civilians. Sanctions have rarely worked to affect a change in policy or practice. Over a decade of sanctions on Iraq may have weakened the regime, but did not succeed in changing its course, and led to much civilian suffering.
Debates as regards R2P will persist, and often lead to inaction, so long as five permanent members of the UN Security Council have veto power. On a few occasions – like Libya in 2011 – some consensus was reached, but even there this quickly dissolved. The addition of more members with veto power, as some have suggested, may only exacerbate the problem of finding a consensus for action. However, if the veto power were withdrawn or not used in the case of a humanitarian crisis, action might be possible based on a majority vote. In such a scenario, even if one or more of the major powers is not in support, the decision to use military force would still need states to volunteer armies and materiel for the effort to implement it. We may then begin to talk of law-based and democratically sound decision-making at the only forum that is authorized to take such decisions - the United Nations.
Meanwhile, sadly, debate will continue, and the victims will continue to wait.