Syria’s civil war, which has resulted in more than 100,000 people killed to date and led to over 2 million refugees, has, for months, demanded an urgent response to deter further massacres. With the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government on August 21st, killing a reported 300 to 400 people and injuring several thousands, the US, UK and France have all been considering an imminent military response. After first proposing a resolution in the UN Security Council authorizing all necessary means to protect civilians, the UK held a vote in parliament which ultimately ruled out possible military action. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorizing force against the Syrian government (which will then be voted on by the Senate). Meanwhile, Russia has argued for the need to wait for the results from UN inspectors as to whether or not chemical weapons were used. France, while first backing the US, has indicated they too now want to wait for the results of the UN inspectors before condoning any military action. Arguments attempting to justify, legalize and legitimatize a military attack have intensified, including efforts to use the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) norm as justification for the use of force. This post draws on the discussions surrounding the latest debate; outlines some of the main issues; and clarifies how RtoP should and should not be applied to the case of Syria.
Evaluating the Motivations Behind the Use of Force
In her article “Responsibility to Protect – Or to Punish” Charli Carpenter, a professor and author on civilian protection, identifies two distinct conversations about the legitimacy of a military campaign – whether military action is an appropriate response to the use of chemical weapons and whether force is an appropriate means for protecting civilian populations from atrocities committed at the hands of their government. Questioning the motives of intervention, Carpenter concludes that “the goal of upholding the chemical weapons taboo is not the same thing as the goal of protecting civilians…If the goal were really to protect civilians, the West would have intervened long ago”.
James Kearney and Alexandra Buskie, of the UK-based organization and ICRtoP member, UNA-UK, in their article, “Responding to Protect Civilians in Syria?” agree. Rather than the intervention being about the “the immediate protection of Syrian civilians from mass atrocities, it is accountability for…the use of chemical weapons that forms the basis of President Obama’s ‘red line’.”
If the goal is to protect civilians, NGOs such as the UNA-UK, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggest that the US wait for the UN investigators to finalize their report so there is “no doubt”. Until then, the question of whether the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its population remains open. Even then, Annan asserts that it is the Security Council who “has moral responsibility to find a common ground after the chemical attacks.”
Does military intervention have a legal foot to stand on?
There is confusion over the legal basis for the use of force in Syria. Ian Hurd, professor and author of “Bomb Syria, Even if It is Illegal” explains Syria is party to neither the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, which bans those who have signed the Convention from developing, producing and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction nor the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which seeks to prohibit the production of chemical weapons and mandates their destruction. Regardless, Hurd claims that Syria has violated humanitarian principles if found guilty–specifically, the prohibition on the indiscriminate killing of civilians set out in the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Additionally, according to the United Nations Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide, Mr. Adama Dieng, and on the Responsibility to Protect, Dr. Jenifer Welsh, “the use of chemical weapons during armed conflict is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime.” In the 2005 World Summit Outcome document, heads of state affirmed they had a Responsibility to Protect populations from war crimes.
However, according to Gareth Evans who co-chaired the 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which first articulated RtoP, “The trouble is that even the most extreme breach of international law [the use of chemical weapons] does not in itself legally authorise a coercive military response.”
Professor Craig Martin says the U.S. is using the principles of the Responsibility to Protect and humanitarian intervention to provide a legal justification for intervention without UN authority. Gerard Gallucci, a retired U.S. diplomat and UN peacekeeper, expands on this in his article “R2P and International Law”, underlining that the U.S.’s tendency to cite RtoP as the authority for moving forward on military strikes without the Security Council is “a facetious argument” because RtoP is “meant to guide the international community, and particularly the Security Council in their decision on use of force.” RtoP never legitimizes the use of force unless it is approved by the UN Security Council “in line with Chapter 6, 7 and 8 of the UN Charter”. This has been confirmed by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon and reiterated by UN Special Envoy to Syria Lahkdar Brahimi, who emphasized that “international law is clear on this. International law says that military action must be taken after a decision by the Security Council.”
RtoP: Military Action, the Last Resort and the Moral Imperative
Despite no legal justification for the use of military force without approval through the UN Security Council, some say intervention is still a valid option. Evans believes that, while there is no legal justification under customary international law to intervene militarily, there is the moral grounds to intervene and the international community needs to “find one [a justification] in the Charter”.
John Holmes, chair of the International Rescue Committee, concludes in his article “Does the UN’s Responsibility to Protect necessitate an intervention in Syria?” that “justification for any military response cannot be punishment, but has to be deterring further use of such weapons, and protecting civilians in particular.”
If the motivation for military intervention is protecting civilians, Carpenter argues that RtoP does indeed come into play, and the Security Council must decide if the “threshold” of last resort can be applied. She adds further that the Council needs to “consider both just cause in terms of civilians lost” and “right intention”, whereby the goal would have to be protecting civilians as far as possible, rather than national interests. She acknowledges that RtoP requires policymakers to “weigh in just cause against the question of whether there is a reasonable prospect of success at reducing civilian bloodshed” and “to select the best type of intervention to meet the goals”.
Benjamin Shingler‘s article“Does world’s ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians justify a Syria strike?” echoes this conviction, saying that“R2P should be acted upon, according to the UN doctrine, only if the following provisions are met: the force used is proportionate to the threat and likely to succeed and unlikely to cause more harm than good.” It is important to note that while RtoP states that military intervention should only be taken at the last resort, there are no agreed-upon guidelines on when and how to implement that use of force.
Will Intervention Cause More Harm than Good?
While there are no hard and fast rules of when the last resort has been reached, Evans, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) draw on the Precautionary Principles of the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty to outline that military action needs to “be judged by its effects in protecting all Syrian civilians” to avoid attacks that could cause disproportionate harm to civilians compared to the expected military gains. Acknowledging this argument, the conclusion by Holmes is that “however supposedly surgical the strikes, significant numbers of civilians are likely to be killed”. Genocide Alert provides an analysis on the consequences of military intervention. They conclude that while there is the chance that deterring the use of chemical weapons could increase the protection of populations against future attacks, there is no direct protection provided by any current intervention plan. Rather, they argue that unless careful planning and execution takes place to protect civilians, the Syrian government could retaliate against the population. When considering intervention, HRW shares the position of Genocide Alert that the protection of civilians must be the top priority, stating that “any armed intervention should be judged by how well it protects all Syrians civilians from further atrocities.” Should military intervention take place, HRW asserts that “feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and ensure that civilians are not objects of attacks” is essential.
While Gilberto Rodrigues of Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Economicas y Sociales agrees that civil society should not support unilateral attacks in the name of the Responsibility to Protect, he suggests that if armed intervention is endorsed by the Security Council, then this body should take into consideration Brazil’s responsibility while protecting, which sets limits on the use of force to ensure military intervention actually achieves the goal of protecting civilians.
Beyond Military Intervention: More Targeted Dialogue
Beyond debating the justification of RtoP in the case of Syria, a number of NGOs and journalists have touched on the need to explore other policy options to find a resolution. Roméo Dallaire, distinguished fellow of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, thinks there should have been an intervention more than a year ago when the situation was ripe for civilian protection. It “should’ve been on the ground and it should have been an intervention…to protect the civilians instead of having to see the civilians arm themselves and fight.” Now, Dallaire is convinced military intervention is likely to do nothing. Alex De Waal and Bridget Conley-Zilkic of the World Peace Foundation agree with this point in their article “What Sir William Would Do in Syria”, stating that “it is folly to think that airstrikes can be limited: they are ill-conceived as punishment, fail to protect civilians and, most important, hinder peacemaking…the most convincing punishment would come through an international war crimes tribunal outside Syria.” Professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro extend on this in their article, “On Syria, a U.N. Vote Isn’t Optional” identifying a number of things US President Obama can do before resorting to military action, and therefore highlighting “the choice between military force or nothing is a false one.”
A number of NGOs have published statements condemning the use of chemical weapons. In a letter to the US President Obama 25 other NGOs, including the Friends Committee on National Legislation, asserted that military strikes are not the answer to the crisis in Syria and there is “no solution other than a political one.” They in turn call upon Obama to intensify diplomatic efforts to stop the bloodshed.
This point is echoed by the statement of International Crisis Group (ICG), which believes that the “debate over a possible strike…has obscured and distracted from what ought to be the overriding international preoccupation: how to revitalise the search for a political settlement.”
Convinced that US action has nothing to do with the interests of the Syrian people but rather the government’s need to reinforce its credibility, ICG asserts that any solution to the crisis can only be achieved through “a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition.” ICG argues this, declaring that,
“This requires a two-fold effort lacking to date: developing a realistic compromise political offer as well as genuinely reaching out to both Russia and Iran in a manner capable of eliciting their interest – rather than investing in a prolonged conflict that has a seemingly bottomless capacity to escalate.”
There is no military solution to this conflict?
To date, RtoP has been invoked in the crisis by officially reminding Syria of its responsibility to protect its populations over 12 times through UN resolutions of the Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council. The UN Secretary-General has also used his power to shape how the conflict is understood, while a number of countries have placed sanctions against Syria. In this regard, RtoP has been successful at keeping the international community engaged on the urgent need for a resolution in Syria.
The use of force is only one tool under the RtoP norm. As it is still unclear whether military intervention would ensure that Syria will uphold its responsibility to protect and would not cause more harm than good, there is an importance to continue to prioritize diplomatic measures to resolve the conflict. While some argue there is justification for military intervention under RtoP, others like Kofi Annan truly believe “there is no military solution to this conflict”. More alternative solutions need to be considered, because in the long-term, holding to account those who have committed atrocities; ensuring an inclusive political peace and reconciliation process; and upholding the protection of the human rights of all ethnic and religious groups will be needed to protect against the future commission of RtoP crimes.