“Responsibility to Protect” on Trial—or Assad?

| June 2012
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The social revolutions associated with the Arab Spring have generated significant policy challenges for governments and for the United Nations. In March 2011, NATO led an enforcement of the UN mandated no fly zone in Libya in order to protect civilians under threat from Muammar Qaddafi’s military forces.

This campaign was a success, particularly by comparison with previous humanitarian crises where there had either been no concerted action by the UN Security Council or that have involved the use of force by coalitions of the willing acting outside of a strict interpretation of the UN Charter.

Libya was an example of how the UN Security Council can take “timely and decisive action” to implement the responsibility to protect (R2P). Yet even when there is UN authorization, and where the military operation achieves its aims with relatively low numbers of civilian casualties and no loss of life on the part of the intervening forces, the principle of R2P seems to provoke criticism.

Writing in the New York Times on November 7th, 2011, David Rieff argued that the Libyan intervention had done “grave, possibly irreparable, damage” to R2P. Its supporters, he added, ought to be mourning rather than celebrating. We agree with his second point: interventions are only consistent with an R2P framework when an atrocity crime has either been committed or is likely to occur. On this basis, even a relatively successful intervention can never be cause for celebration. After all, intervention is only needed when prevention has failed.

The backlash against R2P in some quarters of the Western media continues. Now, with the situation in Syria worsening, critics have focused on the putative problem of inaction, and not the dilemmas of action. Rodger Shanahan, writing recently in the Australian, has argued that R2P is “a theoretical construct” with “little practical utility.” Pointing to the situation in Syria, Shanahan claims that R2P remains a “lofty ideal” because it is not “implementable under all circumstances.”

Shanahan’s analysis of the coercive application of R2P is flawed. To expect any framework for dealing with genocide and mass atrocities to generate a consistent response is lofty at best, reckless at worst. What if applying the same policy response resulted in making a humanitarian crisis even worse? His is a very unreal kind of realism.

Thankfully, the political leaders that adopted R2P in 2005 were much more pragmatic. Specifically, they were mindful of two simple facts, borne of experience. First, international action should be tailored to the specifics of each case. What might have been right for Libya may only inflame the situation further in Syria. Second, for the UN to coerce effectively, action must have the support of the Security Council. When the Council is divided it delivers weak resolutions that defy implementation.Rwanda and Bosnia stand as a testament to why that route should be avoided.

Both of these hard-nosed political principles are embedded in the DNA of R2P: the Security Council must sanction coercion, and the Council must decide which course to take on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, the very phrase “case-by-case” was included in the text of the world community’s commitment to R2P in 2005. Like the Security Council itself, R2P is not a lofty and abstract idea – it is a political principle with a twist of realism.

R2P tells the world that it needs to act to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. But it does not tell us how to achieve this in individual cases. Anyone who doubts the significance of this hard-won advance should cast their mind back thirty years to a time when the Syrian government could massacre 40,000 people in Hama with barely a flicker of international criticism.

Thirty years on, the Assad regime is having a hard time clinging on to power in the face of sharp international criticism, concerted UN diplomacy, and the deployment of monitors – despite, at this point, having killed far fewer people than it did in 1982. In the annals of genocide and mass killing, this is progress.

The case of Syria has proven exceptionally difficult, of course. International action has to be carefully calibrated to ensure that it applies pressure without adding fuel to the fire. To make matters more complex, the interests of at least one of the permanent members are also involved. Both the Security Council itself and R2P were designed to take account of hard politics and, amidst all the difficulties involved, the Council has still found its voice. It has pursued a diplomatic path with the Annan plan and the monitoring mission and responded with unanimous moral condemnation of the Houla massacre.

This is what R2P usually looks like: In each case, different tools are applied by different actors who are often known only to close followers of UN affairs or those connected to the relevant regions. In Kenya, R2P’s goals were realized by diplomacy alone; in Guinea it was diplomacy backed by targeted embargoes; in Cote d’Ivoire it was a combination of diplomacy, embargoes, and limited force; in Burundi it was peacebuilding and conflict prevention. InYemen, diplomacy proved key; and in the wake of South Sudan’s departure from the north, diplomacy, coercion, sanctions, international justice, economic incentives, and peacekeeping were employed to prevent widely expected mass atrocities. Each of these responses was carefully tailored to its context and shaped by regional and global political interests. Whilst it might have grabbed more headlines, we doubt that a Libya-style response would have produced a better result in any of these cases. The same is true of Syria.

Given the diversity of views among the permanent five members of the Security Council on Syria, deciding what UN member states ought to be doing there is difficult. The stark reality is that the original framers of the UN Charter were prudent enough to regard inaction as being preferable to taking measures that risked major power confrontations that could escalate to all-out war.

Critics also betray naivety about the role that the Council and UN more broadly are, in fact, playing. Council diplomats have debated Syria at least weekly since the conflict arose, finding a consensus around a political process monitored by observers. It remains to be seen what steps will be taken next. The painstaking diplomacy on the part of the current UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, that made agreement on the plan and the monitors possible was nothing short of remarkable given the political hand they were dealt. Both, incidentally, framed their argument in R2P terms.

Moreover, critics often miss R2P’s contribution to discussions about Syria. The debate today is not about whether to protect civilians from genocide and mass atrocities, but how to do so. Nobody, not even the Russian government, disputes the fact that the Syrian government has a responsibility to protect its populations and should not be targeting them in the way that it is. This was not always so. The transformation is much more recent than we might like to admit: in 2003-2004 (just before R2P was enunciated) some 100,000 people were massacred in Darfur and two million forced from their homes. The international community didn’t even start getting interested in the concept until 2005.

R2P does not have all the answers about how to prevent mass atrocities and protect victims. Nor does it guarantee that states will always agree on how to do so. No sensible  “R2P booster” – and certainly none of those employed by the UN – has ever intimated otherwise. Knowing that responses must be tailored to circumstances and are always products of hard-nosed politics, R2P’s drafters were wise enough to know the folly of suggesting the sort of  “one-size-fits-all” approach sought by Shanahan. The practice of R2P is the art of the possible – working out what is needed to protect civilians in particular situations and persuading the powers-that-be to ensure their protection. This is precisely what many R2P advocates in governments around the world and in the UN have been doing for the past year.

Thanks to R2P, governments now share a common understanding of the moral principles at stake. For all its other faults, Russia has not denied the basic fact that the Syrian government is behaving badly. As a result, it could not shy away from condemning Houla. In the coming weeks and months, Russia will find it more difficult to stand in the way of concerted international pressure on Syria.

In the long battle against genocide and mass atrocities, a battle that is being slowly won thanks in part to R2P, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Alex Bellamy is Professor of International Security at Griffith University and Director of the Human Protection Hub

Tim Dunne, Professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland and Director of Research at the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P


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Category: Blog, The Ethics of War and Peace

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