Wednesday 13 June 2012

The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine and the Syrian Conflict – A Difficult Test Failed?

Daniel Wand

The International Commission on State Sovereignty’s document on the Responsibility to Protect. Image Source.
The conflict in Syria has now been raging for over 12 months and has claimed over 9000 lives and left thousands more injured. Yet despite this the international community remains reluctant to intervene militarily in order to stem the violent bloodshed. This unwillingness to act must be questioned in light of the existence of an obligation on the international community to intervene in states in order to protect civilians from gross human rights violations being perpetrated against them by their own government. This obligation is located in the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a doctrine which was employed to good effect to bring about an end to the violence in Cote d’Ivoire and the conflict in Libya. However, despite the efforts of various states and non-governmental organisations it has so far seemingly failed to provide a solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and this has led various commentators to consider whether it really is an effective tool for protecting civilians against gross human rights violation or merely, as many sceptics feared, glossy legal rhetoric subservient to international power politics.
The R2P doctrine was first conceived in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention of State Sovereignty and was formulated in response to pleas made by the then Secretary General Kofi Anan to the international community to develop and find consensus on a means of effectively addressing gross systematic violations of human rights. The traditional approach of humanitarian intervention sought to provide just such a means to forcibly intervene in states but was widely criticised and discredited throughout the 1990s, especially by developing states who viewed it as no more than neo-imperialistic interventionism dressed up in a humanitarian guise and therefore a fundamental breach of Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter. The uncertainty surrounding its legitimacy and legality made the international community reluctant to act upon it which resulted in many horrific atrocities occurring unchecked, most notably the genocide in Rwanda and the Srebrenica massacre. 
The R2P doctrine therefore sought to provide a more legitimate and legally uncontroversial framework through which mass human rights violations could be addressed and therefore allow action to be taken when necessary. It did this by placing the obligation to protect civilians primarily in the hands of the state. Only once a state failed to fulfil this obligation was the international community’s responsibility to act triggered. This is primarily to be discharged through a range of peaceful and diplomatic means but can ultimately take the form of military intervention if peaceful means prove ineffective and only in the gravest circumstances. This approach sought to provide a more comprehensive framework for addressing violations which would alleviate the concerns of developing states and help build a consensus amongst the international community on when and in what circumstances action should be taken.
Following its initial elucidation in 2001 and its unanimous adoption by the General Assembly at the World Summit in 2005, the doctrine began to be tentatively applied by the United Nations Security Council, passing its first real test. It was hesitantly referred to in the sanctioning of intervention in Cote d’Ivoire and more unequivocally in Resolution 1973 which provided for military intervention in Libya. At this point it appeared that the doctrine was moving from theory to reality, providing a legitimate means through which to justify intervention and effectively protect vulnerable populations. Ban Ki-Moon suggested that these events 'represent a historic watershed in the application of the R2P' and 'affirm clearly and unequivocally, the international community's determination to fulfil its responsibility to protect'.
States vote for a UN resolution imposing a no fly zone over Libya in the UN Security Council, 17 March 2011. Image Source.
The escalating conflict in Syria presented another and potentially much more challenging test for the newly evolving doctrine, a test which so far many consider it has failed. It is unquestionable that Bashar Al-Assad’s government has failed to discharge its primary responsibility to protect the Syrian population and the international community has subsequently failed to shoulder its secondary responsibility by failing to forcible intervene to quell the violence and killings.
Although a carefully brokered ceasefire plan has recently been put in place, it was not expressly done so under the auspices of R2P and cannot be said to be an example of the international community reacting to fulfil its responsibility established under international law. Although forcible intervention is not appropriate in all circumstances it is unquestionable that the situation in Syria warrants more forcible intervention. More people have been killed in Syria so far than were killed in Libya prior to the NATO led intervention and many have called for action under the framework, including most recently France.
It can therefore be suggested that the failure of the international community to react effectively is a result of a distinct lack of political will. There are various reasons for this; firstly, unlike Gadaffi, Bashar Al-Assad has numerous allies who are willing to defend his position on the international stage. This can be seen from the various threats made by Russia to veto any Security Council resolution which proposed the condemnation of the Syrian regime or sanctioned forcible intervention. Secondly, unlike Libya, Syria’s geographic location in the volatile Middle East region means that many states fear the wider ramifications of a Western led intervention and are thus reluctant to actively support it.
Diplomats disagree over how to deal with Syria. Photo: AFP.
This shows that despite the high hopes and grandiose claims that the doctrine would provide a clear and pragmatic legal framework through which to address gross human rights violations systematically and effectively, this has not quite been achieved as of yet. The conflict in Syria pertinently highlights the fact that the doctrine is still merely legal rhetoric and heavily subject to international power politics, something which Commission attempted to avoid when developing the doctrine.
This is a serious problem which the concept must overcome if it is to become a credible doctrine which can really provide a means to prevent gross human rights violations occurring in the future, an issue expressly acknowledged by states at the 2009 General Assembly debate on the R2P. The R2P has the potential to completely change the way the international community approaches the protection of civilians and it should not be squandering this excellent opportunity to further the implementation of the doctrine and more importantly help the people of Syria.

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