RIP for R2P? Syria and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Intervention
Stewart M. Patrick
Council on Foreign Relations
12 June 2012
The ratcheting up of violence in Syria, including the massacres of civilians in Houla and Qubair, is placing extraordinary pressure on the Obama administration to match its tough anti-atrocities rhetoric with practical action. The pending failure of the Annan peace plan, and the former secretary-general’s declaration that the country is headed for “all-out civil war,” is quickly driving the White House toward an unenviable election-year choice: either sit back and watch the carnage, or forge an ad hoc coalition to prevent Syrian depredations. Senior administration officials have made it clear that if the UN Security Council (UNSC) fails to “assume its responsibilities,” in the words of U.S. envoy Susan E. Rice, “members of this council and members of the international community are left with the option only of having to consider whether they’re prepared to take actions outside of the Annan Plan and the authority of this council.” (…)
Nearly seven years ago world leaders unanimously endorsed a new international principle, the “responsibility to protect.” (…)
That, at least, is the theory. The deteriorating situation in Syria, where the Assad regime’s atrocities continue unabated, shows just how challenging it is to translate this principle into practice. Indeed, Security Council deadlock and buyer’s remorse among UN member states have led some to suggest that R2P is dead.
These obituaries are premature. But the bleak situation in Syria underscores just how difficult it can be to vindicate the principle when the world’s great powers are deadlocked over the merits of armed intervention.
The Syrian situation poses an excruciating—and potentially embarrassing—quandary for the Obama administration, which only last August declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” (…)
The R2P principle is a political and ethical rather than legal obligation. Any leader, including President Obama, must weigh humanitarian imperatives against other considerations of statecraft. Given the inherent risks and uncertainties, any military intervention should meet certain prudential criteria. First, the depredations must meet the threshold of atrocity crimes. Second, the intervention must be undertaken with “right intent”, with its primary motivation protecting innocent lives. Third, it should generally be a last resort, after more peaceable alternatives have been exhausted (or when delay would have fatal humanitarian consequences). Fourth, the response should be proportional to the crimes being committed. Fifth, the consequences of the intervention should do more good than harm. Finally, the intervention should be taken under “right authority”, ideally with the imprimatur of the UN Security Council. (…)
For the Obama administration—which has warned that the Assad regime may be planning a third massacre—crunch time has arrived. It either needs to come up with a credible plan to work with international partners to end the killings in Syria—whether by arming the opposition or by mobilizing a coalition of the willing—or it needs to drop its high-minded rhetoric and let R2P and the Syrian victims rest in peace.
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