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International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
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Whose Responsibility is it to Protect Syrians?
Bennett Ramberg
The Jakarta Globe
7 March 2012
The brutal assault on Syria’s civilian population by government tanks, mortars and rockets continues, but the world appears unable to do more than wring its hands.

Is this the end of a democratic wave ushered in by the Arab Spring and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine that the international community applied to Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi’s threatened massacre of his citizens?

Published accounts estimate more than 9,000 people have fallen in the Syrian unrest, with thousands wounded and displaced while others linger in government prisons. By failing to stop this, is the global community complicit?

When this new century began, new thinking emerged about ways the community should respond to governments that turn on their people.


In 2005, the global community agreed that the time for change had arrived. The World Summit — the largest gathering of leaders in history at a plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly – endorsed the Canada-sponsored Responsibility to Protect initiative that called upon the international community to use diplomatic, humanitarian and, through the Security Council, collective action — namely, force — to protect populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” and asked the General Assembly to consider the matter more fully.


As in Libya, the Arab League took the lead to push back. (…) The United States, the European Community and others joined in exercising diplomatic and economic sanctions. Collectively, these measures suggested that R2P indeed was alive. But they proved insufficient to halt the violence.

Both China and Russia vetoed a watered-down version of the Libya resolution. (…) In Moscow’s case it is not simply its long-supportive relationship with the Assad regime, which allows it to port its Mediterranean fleet in Tartus. Rather — and this applies to China as well — the Kremlin undoubtedly fears that extending R2P to Syria could blow back someday. After all, the authoritarian rulers in Moscow and Beijing fear future serious domestic tensions at home. They would like to prevent any precedent for international intervention in their domestic situation.

Does this pull the rug from R2P in Syria? Not really. The doctrine’s authors anticipated council roadblocks and concluded that in the event that the body failed to “discharge its responsibility in conscience-shocking situations crying out for action, then it is 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 “other means” do not require repetition of the Libya intervention. Neither the West nor the Arab League has the stomach to mire themselves in the potential quagmire that Syria’s sectarian and ethnic divisions pose. Rather, Syria requires that the league and allies apply a more nuanced approach in addition to enforcement and strengthening of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

There remain modest R2P steps much of the international community can endorse to stop the slaughter. First, the league should restate its Jan. 22 call for Assad to step down to include other key ruling members. After all, any regime is more than its leader.

Second, Syria’s foreign opponents should take to the airwaves to offer amnesty to Syrian forces who lay down arms or defect to the rebel side by a specified date to avoid prosecution for crimes against humanity.

Third, Syria’s armed resisters should receive military aid and training sufficient to combat the government’s infantry, armor and helicopters.

Fourth, the United States and others must lobby Russia and China to support R2P, impressing that they are on the wrong side of history with consequences that will diminish their political and economic interests in the region for years.

Fifth, foreign mediators should help mold the divided Syrian opposition into a united, internationally recognized interim government-in-waiting prepared to lay the foundation for legislative elections and constitution building — learning from the difficulties in Libya and Egypt — for a new democratic Syria once the current government falls.

Successful application of R2P will send a message: For governments that murder their people to stay in power, the international community will ensure that the survivor will be not the regime, but the people.
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