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Does the Syrian Conlict Spell the End of R2P?
Oyinkan Muraina
Penn Society for International Development
4 April 2013
Oyinkan Muraina is a staff writer in International Law Development and Human Rights at the Penn Society for International Development.
In what ways is the international community’s response to the conflict in Syria a forecast for the future of R2P and the continued development of state sovereignty in the in a globalized world?
Nearly two years have passed since the Syrian conflict began. In that time, the reactions to the conflagration have been mixed, far from close to anything resembling consensus. Some, such as the US and the EU, have offered intelligence and training to the rebels. Many Arab states have provided arms to the rebels, while Iran has offered arms and more to Assad’s forces. Others, such as Israel, have recently entered the milieu of forces in Syria (after the conflict spilled into the Israeli-held Golan Heights). Others still, like Russia and China, have refused to agree to any action against Syria that pressures Bashar al-Assad to step down. Yet, as the world looks on, the continuing debates beg the questions: Why didn’t the international community step in earlier? Don’t we have a responsibility to protect the civilians of Syria? Didn’t we do so in Libya in 2011? None of these questions have simple answers, but their answers nonetheless spell the fate of the R2P doctrine and international law at large. (…)
Libya provides an interesting case study for the application of R2P. Although Libya was not the first time the UN invoked R2P, it is the most recent invocation of R2P, and the most controversial. (…)
(…) Abiodun Williams asserts that difficulty in gaining consensus around R2P stems from three obstacles. The first, and most relevant, challenge is the “comprehensiveness of the responsibility to prevent which is one of the key remaining conceptual loopholes within the R2P framework.” The debate centers around the scope of preventative measures: with some arguing that R2P calls for short-term, direct action and others claiming the principle includes structural and root cause prevention efforts (Weiss et al, 33). The same debate surfaced when implementing R2P in Libya; those in favor of short-term actions advocated for the AU ceasefire once civilian populations were protected. Meanwhile, those in favor of a structural/ root cause interpretation favored deposing Qaddafi (i.e. cutting off the snake’s head). Because the structural interpretation camp (NATO) had the bulk of the force and money behind the mission in Libya, they ultimately decided its fate. Now, even those once willing to support R2P (albeit a different interpretation), like South Africa, feel like the mission went too far, think that they were used, and “are indignant that the West ignored calls by the African Union for a cease-fire.”
Syria has, in part, paid for NATO overstepping in the Libyan intervention. Russia and China seem committed to sending the message that the West, through the UN, cannot use humanitarian crises to topple undesirable rulers. China, a less talked about obstacle, is extremely adamant about this, especially since their access to oil and energy has been hampered by UN action against other international pariahs like Iran and Sudan. Meanwhile, other members of the BRICS (Brazil, South Africa, India) have become even more skeptical of R2P. Within the UN, the lack of consensus is evidenced by a stalemate on Syria: the Security Council has failed to agree on an arms embargo or even sanctions against the Assad regime, both of which could help to prevent further atrocities. When an unofficial resolution on Syria passed through the General Assembly in August of 2012, Russia quickly “denounced the blatant support to Syrian rebels.” (…)
(…) As outlined above, Russia, China, and others refuse to allow the UN to authorize strict measures against Syria, regardless of the principle invoked. This is because so long as action against Syria is not politically expedient for all member states (or at least the veto wielding ones), no consensus can emerge. On the other hand, when all find action beneficial, the UN will reach consensus as it did in Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, and Libya. That any state plays politics when the lives of innocent human beings are at risk is deplorable, but not unusual. Simply put, R2P is not dead; it’s just politically inconvenient at the moment.


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