Lifting the Siege: Protecting Civilians in Syria
Oxford and Cambridge Forum Politics In Spires
27 June 2012
(…) R2P has made swift progress in the international community since its adoption (in a watered-down form) at the United Nations Summit in 2005, gaining acceptance at the same time as the rise in indictments by the International Criminal Court. Together, this combination offers hopes of real progress in setting limits to crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes.
But they are not yet everybody’s norm. The Syrian government’s brutal and indiscriminate attack on its own civilian population in response to pro-democracy demonstrations seems an easy call for the swift application of R2P. The UN Security Council might well be expected to agree on firm measures that would prevent further atrocities, or go further to intervene militarily if prevention does not work.
But it can’t. Alas, R2P is not the only norm in international relations. The current situation in Syria is strong evidence of a more ancient and enduring norm from imperial and Cold War days: when a strong repressive state has one or two very powerful allies it can easily resist the wider will of international society and public morality. As is well reported, Syria has seemingly unwavering Russian backing and China has no desire to see international military intervention into the Middle East again. Indeed, if truth be told, nor do most other states, even the ones most vocally condemning Syria.
What this shows is that in some places, like Sierra Leone and Libya, R2P is do-able. In places like Darfur and Syria it is not. Why? Places with successful R2P application tend to have very small populations, with regimes bereft of a major ally and where popular backing for international action is nearly unanimous. (…) In Syria, even the deft but highly leveraged ‘Annan method’ is failing. The Syrian government has no incentive to abide by it, nor is the plan leveraged enough by major powers.
So, what does this mean for the protection of civilians in Syria? If R2P lies dazed and confused on the road to Damascus, what will protect civilians today and tomorrow? With no international intervention, Syrian civilians on all sides of the conflict will be thrown back on the usual options in most wars – their own initiative, luck, local military protection and humanitarian action. (…)
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