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R2P After Syria
Jon Western and Joshua S. Goldstein
Foreign Affairs
26 March 2013
 
In our last Foreign Affairs article (“Humanitarian Intervention Comes of Age,” November/December 2011), we noted that armed conflicts have generally become shorter, less intense, and more localized than they were in the past. (…) Such improvements are partially thanks to the development of international norms about violence, including the UN-approved doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P), which holds that the international community is prepared to take action to protect civilians -- by force, if necessary -- when national governments fail to do so. 
 
The international community has also developed better tools for managing and preventing conflicts. (…)
 
Every rule, however, has an exception. In this case, it is the bloody, sectarian civil war in Syria, which shows no sign of abating. In the two years since the conflict began, an estimated 70,000 people have died, and more than three million have been displaced from their homes. Each side enjoys the backing of outside powers, and the UN Security Council has failed to pass meaningful resolutions laying out a blueprint for ending the conflict. (…)
 
Given international disagreement over Syria, some observers argue that little has changed since then, and that R2P is a meaningless doctrine invoked only when the interests of great powers align. In the face of mounting fatalities in Syria, this is an understandable reaction. But such criticism misunderstands the nature of the R2P.
 
The doctrine is ambitious, but also pragmatic and limited. It calls for military intervention only as a last resort, when the international community is united in its aims and when force stands a good chance of improving a situation. R2P has failed to prevent mass slaughter in Syria and all atrocities against civilians worldwide, but despite its limits, the concept that civilians have a right to protection has gained widespread support. This idea will not go away and R2P will likely be a powerful tool in future contexts, especially those in which regime change is not the goal of the international community.
 
Libya revealed both the promise and the constraints of R2P. (…) With Libyan forces moving toward the city, the UN Security Council invoked R2P and passed Resolution 1973, authorizing NATO to use force to protect the citizens of Benghazi. China and Russia refrained from vetoing the resolution, allowing the NATO-led military campaign to move forward. (…)
 
In its final wording, articulated in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Documentall references to the responsibility to rebuild and explicit language regarding an obligation to intervene were cut. (…)
 
Despite these changes, a number of countries, including China and Russia, remain concerned about the doctrine, fearing that even in its revised form, the West can use it to deceptively gain support for liberal interventions. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has tried to mitigate such concerns, making clear that the primary responsibility to protect civilians lies with the state they live in, and that the role of the international community should be to help governments develop this capacity. Military intervention should be considered only when all other options have been exhausted, when there is an imminent risk of mass atrocity, when backed by the Security Council, and when there are reasonable prospects of success and little likelihood of making the situation worse. Russia and China have balked at invoking R2P in Syria -- not because they support Bashar al-Assad's regime but because they worry that Washington wants to use the guise of humanitarian intervention to pursue a broader campaign of regime change worldwide. The United States’ demand that Assad step down has only hardened Moscow’s and Beijing’s opposition to taking action in Syria. (…)
 
To overcome these challenges, the United States and the international community need to decouple regime change from R2P. The doctrine will lose legitimacy if it is seen purely as an instrument of neoimperial adventurism. (…)
 
In addition, the international community would do well to strengthen the nonmilitary elements of R2P. For example, countries should strengthen watchdog structures, such as the UN Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, which coordinates the monitoring of serious human rights violations in conflict zones and issues early warnings reports to the Security Council. (…)
 
The international community is still figuring out how to prevent and manage violence against civilians. R2P has a mixed record, but that does not mean that it has failed. Taken together with other conflict prevention and management strategies, R2P and its core principle -- that civilians have a right to protection -- remain essential to continuing the trend toward a more peaceful world.
 
Read a post in response to this article by former ICRtoP Social Media Coordinator and Blogger and current Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Evan Cinq-Mars, entitled, “R2P: Time to rework the rules, reforge consensus”.

 

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