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Debate of the week: R2P and the human rights crisis in Syria

Responsibility to Protect (R2P): Renewal and reaffirmation - or rejection of a troubled doctrine? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, R2P and the Human Rights Crisis in Syria.

David Petrasek, Guest Debate Editor this week is based in Ottawa, where he is an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He is also a Senior Adviser with the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. He has worked on human rights and humanitarian issues for 25 years, with the UN, NGOs, and think tanks, and has taught international law at universities in the UK, Sweden and Canada. David introduces the week’s discussion:

“This week we are launching a series of articles that address the usefulness and relevance of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in the current debate over Syria. R2P was first proposed in 2001, in the wake of NATO’s controversial intervention in Kosovo.  As eventually endorsed by UN Member States in 2005, R2P provides that the international community, acting through the UN Security Council, should act decisively – including as a last resort through the use of force – to halt mass atrocities. But the divided Council’s manifest failure to do so in Syria - even in the face of mass atrocity, 100,000 killed, and millions forced to flee – calls into question the relevance of the doctrine, even as it reignites support for a more robust R2P to support non-UN authorized military action.

R2P was intended to build consensus for international action, yet no such consensus is visible as regards Syria. What future for R2P? Will a unilateral US strike further undermine the doctrine, or, conversely, prove its importance in legitimizing action when the Security Council is divided?  Can a new consensus be forged to support robust action to protect civilians, and if so on what terms?

On Monday we published a piece by Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister and President of the International Crisis Group from 2000-2009. Evans co-chaired the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that first proposed the R2P concept. In it he notes the difficulties Syria presents, but argues that R2P principles remain relevant and suggests how they might apply in the current debate over a possible US military strike.     

On Wednesday, we published a piece by international law Professor B.S. Chimni, from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, that takes a more critical stand on R2P, and explains the widespread scepticism in the BRICS countries, both about the doctrine and its possible application to supporting military intervention in Syria.

On Thursday, Kwesi Aning and Frank Okyere, both from the Faculty of Academic Affairs & Research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, defended the importance of R2P, especially as a means of rallying action short of the use of force, including dialogue towards a negotiated solution.

Events have moved quickly all week, but it looks like US military action to punish the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons is postponed, perhaps indefinitely. Yet the debate on how best to protect civilians in Syria is no less urgent. In the piece published today, Friday, I argue that coercive military force, outside UN authorization, is almost never an available or appropriate solution, and that it many cases – including Syria – threats of such action are a hindrance not a help to effective action." 

About the author

David Petrasek is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa. He was formerly Senior Policy Director and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of Amnesty International. David has worked on human rights and conflict resolution issues with the UN, foundations and NGOs for over 25 years. 

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