Debating the Responsibility to Protect in Libya, Syria

The Responsibility to Protect has been the subject of considerable debate in recent weeks, particularly as the international community continues to pursue an end to the violent crisis in Syria, and the transition in post-Gaddafi Libya moves forward with both uncertainty and concern.

This post draws on the discussion surrounding RtoP, its application in the context of these situations, and thoughts on building international consensus on the norm. These discussions reflect the ongoing need to improve international understanding of the Responsibility to Protect, and foster comprehensive international dialogue on how to implement the norm and prevent threats of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing on a case-by-case basis. It is important to note that this post is not an opening of debate on the norm or its foundations, but an examination of important points raised on how it is operationalized.

Recent International Responses Spark Debate Over RtoP 

Alex De Waal’s controversial 9 March op-ed in the New York Times on “How to End Mass Atrocities” sparked the debate, in which he chided Gareth Evans, a former chairman of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), Samantha Powers, an official on the Obama administration’s National Security Council and author of The Problem from Hell, and “fellow idealists” for misrepresenting history and misunderstanding the measures that can most effectively halt mass atrocities.

Drawing on the recent interventions in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire and the so-called insistence on stopping mass atrocities through the use of military force by RtoP supporters and Western powers, De Waal writes:

“The idealists insist on pursuing a more ambitious agenda: nothing short of democracy and justice, imposed by military intervention. And this can undermine simply getting the killing to stop. For perpetrators, the prospect of foreign intervention and prosecution rules out the possibility for compromise. For rebels, it creates a perverse incentive to escalate ethnic violence so as to provoke an international military response…Western policy makers interested in stopping mass crimes should not overlook tools that can work. Where violence is used as an instrument for political gain, it is negotiable. Some perpetrators can be moderated through diplomacy. Others will stop killing if they defeat a rebellion or realize they cannot. The main aim should be to stop genocidal killing.”

De Waal’s piece generated a number of substantive responses, particularly a direct response from Evans defending RtoP in the New York Times (11 March), a post from Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies, on the website of the Canadian International Council (12 March), and an article by Lloyd Axworthy, the former Canadian foreign minister who commissioned the ICISS in 2000, on why RtoP shouldn’t be defined by the situation in Libya in Global Brief Magazine (13 March).

Evans’s rebuttal, In Defense of R2P, disputes De Waal’s arguments, with the former ICISS co-chair reminding that RtoP is not, “old “humanitarian intervention” wine in a new bottle”, and that the norm is not about, “mindless moralizing, or prioritizing democracy or the achievement of longer-term justice, at the expense of effective action to stop mass killing in its tracks.” Instead, as Evans notes, RtoP is about mobilizing the will and resources to respond to mass atrocities flexibly, depending on the circumstances of the particular case.

In R2P Is Not a License For Military Recklessness, Paris also disputes what he calls De Waal’s “misrepresentation” of RtoP:

“…while de Waal criticizes “idealists” for oversimplifying complex conflicts…he himself presents R2P in distortedly simplified terms. Indeed, based on his op-ed and previous writing, he seems to want to demolish R2P rather than to engage with elements of the doctrine that are consistent with his own “pragmatic” approaches to conflict resolution.”

Drawing on the Precautionary Principles of the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Paris raises an important point:

“…even in the face of mass atrocities when all other attempts to end violence have failed, military intervention is not warranted if it is likely to make the situation worse. This important, prudential warning at the heart of R2P is too often forgotten by the doctrine’s critics and proponents alike. R2P is not an automatic licence for military intervention. Any contemplated armed action must be justified, necessary, proportional – and proven to do more good than harm.”

This point is echoed by Axworthy in his piece, Don’t Allow Libya to Define R2P for Global Brief Magazine:

“The reality is that the original International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report, released in 2001 made clear that the implementation of R2P is about the protection of civilians, should be considered primarily preventative and considers military action a very last resort.”

All three authors offer the efforts of Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General and the current Joint UN-League of Arab States envoy attempting to bring a negotiated end to violence in Syria, as an example of a non-coercive measure employed to respond to disastrous situations through the RtoP framework.  Such an effort, they argue, are also in line with De Waal’s preference for diplomatic solutions to mass atrocities.

Libya’s “Long Shadow”, Syria, and the Responsibility to Protect

Beyond De Waal’s critique, further debate regarding RtoP by academics, journalists, and think tanks has touched on the manner in which UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which mandated a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya, was enforced by NATO and its allies, and the implications of that enforcement on the international response to the situation in Syria (which is discussed in an extensive post featuring civil society voices).

A 19 March report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) entitled Short War, Long Shadow, discussed the impact of the crisis in Libya on RtoP, highlighting what amounted to an opportunity missed for the norm.

According to the report, despite the crisis in Libya’s being a clear RtoP situation, and the broad support from the international community to respond with “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, “errors and omissions” by the intervening powers have resulted in a failure to advance international consensus for RtoP.

RUSI cites such issues as NATO’s command and control of the operation, the possible expansion of the scope of the mission from humanitarian (civilian protection) to political terms (regime change) by NATO and its allies, and the decision by Western powers to allow weapons and training to the Libyan rebels despite an arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council. As the report states, these issues, “have left a sour taste in the mouths of powers like Russia, China, and India,” and a concern that the legacy of Libya will be that, “China and Russia will presume that the model in future operations is rather regime change under the cloak of R2P, and will be more forthcoming with vetoes.

Echoing this, Ruan Zongze, Vice President of the China Institute of International Studies, wrote on 15 March in the China Daily that the Libya case has proven that RtoP is, “nothing more than the pursuit of hegemony in the name of humanity”. Zongze added further that:

“As Libya demonstrated, the responsibility to protect can be abused to change a country’s government, which goes against the purposes of the UN Charter, the principle of national sovereignty and the principle of noninterference in internal affairs.”

Therefore, as the RUSI report stated:

“Libya was touted as a classic test-case of humanitarian intervention, now incorporated as a new United Nations concept and usually referred to as the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, or R2P. And yet, it should have been obvious then – and certainly became obvious thereafter – that Libya remained the exception rather than the rule in the development of such an international responsibility.”

According to RUSI, the “long shadow” of the Libyan experience has loomed large over Syria, emboldening Russia and China to block any future intervention in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown, which, RUSI states, would be “justified under RtoP.”

Aidan Hehir, the Director of the Security and International Relations Programme at the University of Westminster, echoed the above findings in his 14 March post for e-IR, Syria and the Responsibility to Protect: Rhetoric Meets Reality. The author concluded that the “celebratory rhetoric” of RtoP supporters – such as EvansAxworthyRamesh Thakur, and Thomas Weiss – in light of the Libya operation has been met by the harsh reality of the Syria case, where, until very recently, a collective international response had been stymied by Russia and China.

In this sense, Hehir states that even if such a response to the situation in Syria is pursued, “it will not, however, constitute a vindication for RtoP.” This, as the author asserts, is because the Syrian case, “demonstrates, in all too graphic detail, the limits of RtoP,” which amount to the national interests of the UN Security Council’s Permanent 5 (P5) members coming to the fore and blocking collective international action. For Hehir, this touches more broadly on the inconsistent use of the veto power by the P5, and the need for “creative thinking” about UN reform and the absence of a UN rapid reaction capability.

Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute for International Policy added to the discussion on Libya, Syria, and the use of force to protect civilians through the RtoP framework with his 22 March piece, Libya Was Easy.  The author drew on the differences between the Libya and Syria case, stating that:

“Even the Libyan experiment showed how difficult military campaigns…are to prosecute.  The Libyan military had a very limited capability, the terrain was extremely favourable to an aerial campaign and the international community was united in its resolve.  And it still took seven months to successfully prosecute the intervention.  In Syria none of the conditions present for the Libyan intervention exist.”

As Shanahan notes, this touches on the general difficulties in using force to protect civilians. Not only are there no guarantees that the use of force can achieve stated goals, but deployment could also have unintended consequences. As an example, the author raises the Syrian case:

Internal conflicts, particularly those of a sectarian or ethnic nature, are nearly always the most vicious and intractable of wars. The use of force against the regime in power in these circumstances, if not employed adroitly, can have unintended second and third order effects that may result in a worse situation than that originally faced.  Just as the guiding principle of ‘do no harm’ applies to the provision of humanitarian assistance, so too does it apply equally to decisions to invoke R2P as a justification for military intervention.  And in Syria, it is difficult to see how the military dimension of R2P would not breach that principle.”

This is explored further by Zack Beauchamp in his 16 March piece at Foreign Policy Magazine online, Syria’s crisis and the future of R2P, in which he contemplates the “options on the table” in Syria and the potential consequences for the norm. Beauchamp wrote:

Understanding the limits of military force in the Syrian case is critical to R2P’s viability as an international norm. A failed intervention — which would almost certainly involve the death of international troops — would taint the idea among emerging powers like Brazil and India who are crucial to making it a widely accepted part of state practice in the 21st century. Such states, while open to R2P as a doctrine, are wary of its use to justify humanitarian intervention. A haphazard invocation of R2P in Syria could destroy the doctrine’s international legitimacy just as it was being built, preventing R2P from becoming a shared framework for understanding the legal and moral role of sovereignty.”

Moving forward, Beauchamp sees a middle ground between non-intervention and the pursuit of military options in Syria, which he suggests are grounded in RtoP’s third pillar – timely and decisive response – and reflected by the UN’s current effort to consolidate a ceasefire agreement by President Assad by potentially deploying unarmed monitors and/or peacekeepers.

But beyond the case of Syria, and touching on the significant debate over Libya, Syria, and RtoP that has occurred both in the halls of the UN and across the Internet, there remains a crucial need to address the concerns that have emerged in the as a result of the Libya operation.

In this sense, this summer’s (yet unscheduled) UN General Assembly informal interactive dialogue on RtoP, which will focus on measures within the third pillar of timely and decisive response, is an important opportunity to address the concerns of Member States over the RtoP’s implementation in Libya. It will also serve as a timely forum to clarify the full range of humanitarian, political, economic and military measures available to the international community to respond to a country-specific situation under the norm’s third pillar, and stimulate further international discussion on best practices and lessons learned.

Read On

Five Ways to Advance a Responsibility to Protect agenda in Syria, by Bennet Ramberg (The Daily Star, 19 March)

The Failure of an Idea, by Kim R. Holmes (The Washington Times, 21 March)

Saving the Syrians, by Gareth Evans (Project Syndicate, 23 March)

When Intervention Fails, by Joshua Foust (PBS Need to Know, 26 March)

Stopping Assad, Saving Syria, New York Times Room for Debate, featuring Radwan Ziadeh, Ammar Abdulhamid, Simon Adams, Mona Yacoubian, Michael Weiss, and Patricia Degennaro (26 March)

Flight is Not Always An Option: A Response to De Waal, Meierhenrich, and Conley-Zilkic, by Phil Orchard (Fletcher Forum, 27 March)

If it brings freedom, a bloody Syrian civil war may be preferable to slavery, by Charles Crawford (The Telegraph, 27 March)

The Least Bad Option, by James Traub (30 March, Foreign Policy Magazine online)

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Filed under Cote d'Ivoire, Libya, RtoP, Syria

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