R2P- The devil is in the Detail

R2P Syrien It may well be that Libya represented the high-water mark of the responsability to Protect (R2P) and Syria is its downfall.
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The uglier the situation in Syria becomes, the more analysts seem perplexed about the world’s inability to deal with this crisis. What has happened? Did we not, collectively, promise ourselves that Rwanda or Srebrenica should never happen again? Would not the majority of us agree with Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations and soon-to-be senior national security adviser to President Obama, when she said: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again (Rwanda 1994), I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required”[i]?

Yet, the world’s answer to the mass atrocities of the mid-nineties, the concept of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), has failed to deliver. What is this concept and what is its utility in the Syrian context?

These were some of the questions raised at a discussion organised by the Berlin-based Heinrich-Böll-Foundation with Prof. Michael Ignatieff as the keynote speaker entitled “The Responsibility to Protect in a Post-Western World, Mass Atrocities, the BRICS & the West”. Before engaging with the Ignatieff’s points, a brief introduction of R2P is in order.

The concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), adopted at the UN 2005 World Summit and subsequently approved by the UN’s Security Council (SC) in 2006, is an attempt to answer the dilemma posed by civil conflict in the mid nineties:

...If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica –to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?[ii]

Since Secretary General Kofi Annan asked this question at the beginning of the millennia, R2P has been the object of intense academic debate. Recent political developments in the Middle East — particularly the SC’s reference to R2P following the NATO intervention in Libya — have reignited this debate and the criticism against R2P. For some, it is seen as a political framework based on existing international law, put in place to address crimes defined as genocide. For others, R2P “threatens to undermine the national sovereignty and political autonomy of the weak” or “is little more than rhetorical posturing that promises little protection to vulnerable populations”[iii].

It would now appear that Syria has become the place where R2P, as a framework and as a norm, is really being tested. Indeed, the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation chose R2P as the sole angle from which to discuss the situation in Syria.

Like many similar events organised by political foundations standing in the tradition of the ‘New Left’, the title acknowledges a post-imperial age. In this light, one can only hope that the second part of the title (Mass Atrocities, the BRICS & the West) was meant as an ironic commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Edward Said’s death.

Inspired by the unfortunate title, Ignatieff started by describing the event as a “classical experience of modernity”: a group of intellectuals, students and decision-makers sitting together in a sun-drenched room, in a country with one of the highest living-standards in recorded history, reflecting about hell (in that particular context, one could write another interesting comment about the usefulness of the term “modernity” — or the implied lack thereof — in other regions...).

At least with “hell”, everybody knew that Syria was meant.

For Ignatieff, Syria is more than a foreign policy issue; it is a challenge to our morality and identity; it epitomises the place where the link between ‘legality and legitimacy’ (vis- à -vis state sovereignty) has been severed. In this view, state sovereignty is defined positively: states have an obligation to protect their own population and if they fail to do so, this responsibility then falls to other states. Here, intervention becomes a responsibility, but always as a measure of last resort.

Another problem identified by Ignatieff is that conventional wisdom — heavily influenced by the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan — tells us that military intervention is never successful. Hence, the wider Western public are often reluctant to accept any form of intervention in a complex foreign crisis. However, Ignatieff argued that this view often confuses R2P with regime change (RC) — two very different concepts.

Finally, most people tend to forget that through action such as we have seen in Kenya in 2011 or the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, countless lives have been saved. So while the legality — and to some extent the legitimacy — of these interventions can be challenged, it should be acknowledge that at least “no one is dying there anymore”.

While Ignatieff was right to emphasise the distinction between R2P and RC, he failed to highlight that this differentiation is often merely academic. In a recent interview in The Guardian, Gareth Evans – instrumental in drafting the UN document accepted by in the UN in 2005 – acknowledges that the current paralysis of the Security Council regarding Syria is due to “the controversy that erupted in the Security Council in 2011 about the way the norm (R2P) was applied in the NATO-led intervention in Lybia”[iv]. Gareth argues that when it became apparent that the intervening states (the US, UK and France) would settle for nothing short of RC, the other members of the SC were confirmed in their suspicion that “recent interventions have been too easily dominated by the agenda of the US, Britain and France”[v].

Returning to Syria, Ignatieff concluded his talk by arguing that the world community is now facing a choice between several options, all equally bad.

Unless Russia is convinced that finding a solution is in its own self-interest, the current stalemate between the warring factions only benefits Assad’s regime. He concluded that, even if Russia could be convinced — which he sees as having only a 15 percent chance of occurring — an Iraq-style collapse into sectarian violence can only be prevented if the Ba’ath party and military structures are left in place (at least partially).

While this analysis is up for discussion, the interesting fact remains that even though R2P is a normative framework, it can only be applied in a realist manner (normative values and hard interest do not mix well). Even a supporter of R2P (as Ignatieff is) would have to acknowledge that it can only be applied if real interests are at stake: “Humanitarian arguments alone have never convinced anyone”. In other words, if Russia can be convinced to stop its support of the Assad regime, it will definitely not be because it suddenly acknowledges its moral obligation.

Countries opposing R2P are not the only ones who refuse to utilise the R2P discourse; even countries that are normally supportive of this norm use it selectively. This inconsistency is particularly visible in the “aspects of implementation, in particular with respect to the use of coercive measures to protect populations”[vi]. Examples of selective use of R2P[vii] — widely rejected by the global community — would be France’s use of the R2P rhetoric against Burma after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Russia’s R2P justification of its military deployment in South Ossetia in 2008, and a joint call (Palestinian Authorities, Qatar, Iran and the World Council of Churches) against Israel in 2009.

On the other hand, while Kenya (2011) and Darfur (ongoing since 2003) are relatively uncontested examples, most countries refuse to discuss R2P with regards to Somalia, where since December 2006 more than 16,500 civilians have been killed, and in 2007 alone up to 1.9 million Somalis were newly displaced. This gives Somalia a higher level of death and displacement than Darfur and Kenya combined, and yet discussion of the crisis tends to centre on the topics of piracy and Muslim extremism.

So, even though the global community agrees that Rwanda or Srebrenica should never happen again, the devil remains in the detail. Stuck between its normative aspirations and the selective way it has been applied in recent years, it remains to be seen if R2P has anything substantial to contribute to end ‘genocidal’ violence.

It may well be that Libya already represented the high-water mark of R2P as a protection framework, at the expense of Syrians.


[i] The Washington Post (2013) What do Susan Rice and Samantha Power promotions mean for Syria policy? Probably not much, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/06/05/what-do-susan-rice-and-samantha-power-promotions-mean-for-syria-policy-probably-not-much/

[ii] ICISS (2001), The responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty

http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf

[iii] Bellamy A.J. (2010) The Responsibility to Protect –Five Years on, Ethics & International Affairs,24 no.2

[iv] The Guardian (2013) Yes, the UN has a duty to Intervene. But when, where and how, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/04/un-syria-duty-to-intervene/print

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ban (2012), Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, Report of the Secretary-General, http://www.refworld.org/docid/4989924d2.html

[vii] Cf. Bellamy A.J. (2010) The Responsibility to Protect –Five Years on, Ethics & International Affairs,24 no.2

[i] The Washington Post (2013) What do Susan Rice and Samantha Power promotions mean for Syria policy? Probably not much, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/06/05/what-do-susan-rice-and-samantha-power-promotions-mean-for-syria-policy-probably-not-much/

[ii] ICISS (2001), The responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty

http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf

[iii] Bellamy A.J. (2010) The Responsibility to Protect –Five Years on, Ethics & International Affairs,24 no.2

[iv] The Guardian (2013) Yes, the UN has a duty to Intervene. But when, where and how, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/04/un-syria-duty-to-intervene/print

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ban (2012), Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, Report of the Secretary-General, http://www.refworld.org/docid/4989924d2.html

[vii] Cf. Bellamy A.J. (2010) The Responsibility to Protect –Five Years on, Ethics & International Affairs,24 no.2

17:36 11.06.2013
Dieser Beitrag gibt die Meinung des Autors wieder, nicht notwendigerweise die der Redaktion des Freitag.
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