Over the recent days, several calls have been made to apply the recently adopted doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the situation of Syria, in view of the mounting violence and death toll among civilians. According to a poll published by Reuters, a majority of the French population would back a UN military intervention in Syria. Russian and Chinese objections to UN intervention on the basis of the respect of state sovereignty has been severely criticized by Western powers and global public opinion in general.
This type of argument is far from being new. While the concept of R2P arose in the early 2000s out of the dramatic experience resulting from UN inaction in Rwanda and the indecisiveness of NATO in Srebrenica, there are still a number of political and professional questions associated to the implementation of such a norm. Many argue that R2P has not reached the level of an international legal rule, which therefore doesn’t set clear obligations for states, including Russia and China as members of the Security Council, regarding its implementation.
Rightly so, the Security Council adopted a resolution in 2005, subjecting coercive measures under R2P to the traditional rules pertaining to the veto of the organization. Since then, the doctrine has slowly lost some of its appeal, due to the inability of its protagonists to specify clear benchmarks that would trigger such interventions (i.e. what constitutes a genocide, crime against humanity, or war crime, justifying the use of force), and to define what type of measures could effectively prevent, mitigate, or prohibit these violations in the first place.
In view of the lack of consensus among professionals on when and how to intervene, as well as how to rebuild a stable society respectful of human rights after such an intervention, states have become increasingly nervous that R2P could be used on political grounds to interfere into the affairs of other states. While some denounce the potential politicization of the doctrine, others recognize that military interventions under R2P precisely need political mobilization without which no state would commit the required resources, particularly military, to stop atrocities. In other words, foreign policy goals, rather than systematic definitions, are likely to dictate military interventions. In such a case, there has been a clear tension between those who want to better define triggers, means, and methods of R2P, and those who want it to remain vague as a practical matter to mobilize support in times of crisis.
Ultimately, R2P may well become an accepted concept, paradoxically when it will be no longer required. By defining sovereignty as a responsibility, rather than a privilege, and by intervening in a preventive manner, rather than through military force, states will evidentially agree that a major failure of an international system based on human rights requires the collective use of force to re-establish international order. In this context, the Russian and Chinese veto, as frustrating and dramatic as it may be in the case of Syria, is more reflective of their perceptions of an international system based on human rights, than on the pros and cons of intervening in Syria.
For the time being, much more needs to be done in building a consensus on the means and methods of implementing R2P. In particular, much work needs to be invested in researching the military objectives and tactics of such operations, the role and responsibilities of humanitarian organizations, in establishing clear protocols to rebuild broken societies in line with human rights values and norms, and in prompting processes of reconciliation as a premise for sustainable peace. Therefore, denouncing the veto power of Russia and China will have real significance only when the protagonists of R2P will have a clear understanding of what needs to be put into the resolution in the first place.
Responsibility to Protect