R2P and Syria: Avoiding collateral damage
10 February 2012
We are in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria. There already seems to be a consensus in the global media that the lack of coercive measures taken against President al-Assad's regime shows that the principle of 'responsibility to protect' (R2P) is in trouble.
According to this line of argument, the concerted and authorised action to protect Libyans (Resolution 1973) now looks like an exceptional moment of internationalist sentiment and action that is never likely to be repeated. Suddenly, the diplomatic clock appears to have been turned back to the dark days of diplomatic indifference witnessed during the genocide in Rwanda.
It is possible to quibble with the view that Libya was an unalloyed example of an R2P operation, for two reasons. First, the key Security Council resolution talked about Libya's failure to live up to its responsibility to protect, rather than invoking the more disputed dimension of the international community's responsibility to take timely and decisive action.
Second, and more significantly, the R2P advocates … were more equivocal about Libya. (…)
Whatever the diplomatic fissures revealed by last weekend's failure to agree a Security Council resolution, it is important to remember that there has never been a global consensus about how to operationalise R2P when the state in question is failing to live up to its responsibilities and will not permit external assistance.
In this sense, the decision that has taken place over the last decade to locate authority for R2P enforcement action solely in the UN Security Council means there will always be cases where an obstinate great power (or two) can stop the will of the others. It stands to reason that the coercive aspect of R2P can either be enabled by the Security Council as it was in Libya, or prevented, as it has been so far in Syria.
Reviving the question of the Security Council's monopoly over R2P authorisation is a discussion that will be emboldened after Syria. The other is the question of the gap that can open up between Security Council permission and control over military operations. This is an issue that underpinned a recent statement by the Brazilian Government regarding the need for greater responsibility to be exercised 'while protecting'.
We should remember that the real crisis is the brutality that some governments continue to inflict on their people: R2P or some variant of it is likely to continue to inform responses to humanitarian infernos even though concerted and lawful action to extinguish them will remain rare and prone to inconsistent implementation.
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