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Syria: How R2P Might Still Work
Drew Christiansen
America Magazine
2 August 2012
Drew Christiansen is editor-in-chief of America Magazine. 
The Responsibility to Protect, the innovative international law doctrine that establishes a framework for international intervention in the domestic life of countries where significant numbers of people are subject to violence or grave deprivation, seems tailor-made for the current civil war in Syria. But the United Nations has hesitated to do more than commission former Secretary General Kofi Annan to undertake two failed peace missions to the region. While there is ample reason to hesitate before intervening in Syria, evidence of indiscriminate government attacks on its citizens is sufficient to warrant an array of measures under the R2P doctrine short of all out force to protect Syrians from their murderous leaders.
Commentators lay the blame for the failure to intervene on the opposition of Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Even if no vetoes blocked international action, of course, there are lots of reasons to hesitate to intervene militarily. (…)
There are essentially two obstacles to intervention, one political, the other, ethical. The political barrier to action, of course, is the lack of consensus on the UN Security Council. The ethical barrier is the uncertainty, one might even say the excessive difficulty, of reaching a peaceful settlement by armed intervention. The framers of the R2P doctrine did anticipate situations in which the Security Council might be deadlocked and allowed that it would be “unrealistic to expect that concerned states will rule out other means and forms of action to meet the gravity and urgency of these situations.” The political barrier is not insuperable. For example, a coalition of states, like “the Friends of Syria” or the Arab League, might undertake a ‘legitimate,” though not formally legal, intervention as in Kosovo in 1999. So, the need for action could be met in other ways than through an all-out military intervention under the authority of the Security Council. Those other means ought to be aimed at reducing the obstacles to international execution of the responsibility to protect and at facilitating conditions for a just peace in post-bellum Syria. (…)
A particularly thorny problem in regime-changing conflicts like that in Syria is the question of transitional justice, that is, how to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable for their crimes. It is particularly vexing because often to wind down the conflict a choice must be made between exacting full accountability and advancing the end of armed conflict by extending amnesty to some of the perpetrators. (…)
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