The Islamic State and the case for Responsibility to Protect

Do not let feelings toward past invasions in the Middle East deter us from protecting Syrians and Iraqis.
By: /
April 20, 2015
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate in this August 11, 2014 file photo. The Islamic State, which had declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, prompted tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians to flee for their lives during their push to within a 30-minute drive of the Kurdish regional capital Arbil. REUTERS/Rodi Said/
Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia

With every new day comes a new revelation about the atrocity crimes committed by the so-called “Islamic State” (IS). The United Nations now thinks it likely that the group committed genocide against Iraq’s ancient Yazidi population. It has also set out its stall to eradicate or “ethnically cleanse” Christians, Alawites, Shi’ites and moderate Sunnis who reject its extreme and idiosyncratic interpretation of Islam. IS is also waging a systematic war against women and girls, robbing them of their fundamental human rights, denying them an education, and condemning them to lives subject to violence and abuse.

IS is an organization that, as a matter of proudly held and publically proclaimed ideology, makes no distinction between soldiers and non-combatants. It makes blanket claims that peoples and individuals that fail to conform to its worldview are legitimate targets for killing. Theirs is a doctrine of selective extermination structurally similar to others we have seen in the past such as those espoused by the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge and other murderous regimes. The IS has shot, beheaded, knifed, bludgeoned, burned and tortured its unarmed victims – every one of these instances a crime against humanity, if not an act of genocide. It stands opposed to the values that sustain the community of humanity.

The Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, was created by world leaders in order to protect populations from atrocity crimes like those perpetrated by IS. It is a simple principle which holds that all states should protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; that states should assist one another to achieve this goal; and that when a state manifestly fails to protect its population from these crimes, the international community should take timely and decisive action using all the instruments placed at its disposal by the UN Charter.

There can be no doubt that R2P establishes a responsibility to protect Iraqis and Syrians from IS.

What could have been done?

Clearly more could, and should, have been done to prevent the rise of IS. It is an organization born, initially, of the turmoil in Syria whose rise could be have been stymied by a more determined international response to the civil war there. In particular, the international community should have done more to support Kofi Annan’s peace plan in 2012, a plan that enjoyed the backing of the UN Security Council and the nominal support of the parties but which geopolitics allowed to wither on the vine. The world could also have done more to demand accountability for crimes against the civilian population by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court to send a strong signal that there would be no impunity. More should also have been done to stem the flow of arms into the hands of little known non-state armed groups in Syria. Pouring fuel indiscriminately onto the fire is seldom a recipe for better civilian protection, though as a last resort targeted support to well-trusted groups can boost local protection efforts as the Kurdish defense of Kobane shows. In Iraq, more could and should have been done to temper the government’s sectarian politics and integrate the county’s Sunnis into the new Iraq.

But failures of prevention, and qualms about the deeper roots of this present situation in such misadventures as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, must not be allowed to excuse inaction in the face of atrocity crimes. Quite the opposite. Failing to respond effectively to the atrocities perpetrated by IS only compounds past mistakes and failures of prevention. The price for both will be paid in the lives of Iraqis and Syrians.

Never too late to act

R2P demands that the international community take action to protect populations from IS and redouble its efforts until the tide is turned. The situation in the Middle East is so acute that military force is needed to assist the government of Iraq to protect its own population and free its citizens from IS rule. The situation in Syria is of course much more complex but targeted force is needed to support those groups on the frontline of the campaign against the IS. Whilst such efforts might in the short term bolster the Assad regime in the face of its internal opponents, they should not be mistaken for support for that regime. Nor should they distract the international community from the urgent need to end the impunity that has characterized Syria’s civil war with such horrific results.

It might be contended that the IS poses a difficult case for R2P because the principle speaks only of the responsibilities of states and not of non-state armed groups. This might be considered part of the unfinished conceptual business of R2P. For, whilst the UN Secretary-General has been adamant in insisting that the principle imposes obligations on non-state armed groups as well as on states, that point was not specifically made by Member States in 2005. The General Assembly or Security Council could correct that oversight with a clear statement that R2P most certainly does create demands for non-state armed groups.

Others have claimed that the problems posed by IS are primarily ones of counter-terrorism, not R2P. That view mistakes the nature of the organization’s violence. It also overlooks the reality that terrorism — understood as violence intentionally targeted against civilians — is itself often a crime against humanity. In some situations, such as that caused by the IS, counter-terrorism and R2P are simply different ways of talking about the same problem: violent attacks on civilian populations. The fact that a crisis can be described in terms of counter-terrorism does not mean that it is not also a challenge to R2P. IS is not unique in this regard, the same point applies to groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. More needs to be done in future to understand the contours of the relationship between R2P and counter-terrorism.

Another element of R2P that had not hitherto been considered until it was exposed by IS, is the responsibility of states to prevent their populations — citizens or otherwise — from committing atrocity crimes in third countries. From the UK to China, foreign fighters have poured into the Middle East to support the IS. Not only do they pose an immediate threat to the people of that region, returning extremists also pose a longer-term threat. Whether it is seen as a pillar I (the primary responsibility of the state to protect its own) or a pillar II (the responsibility to assist others) exercise, preventing the exporting of atrocities is a part of the responsibility to protect. The UN Secretary-General might reflect on that point in future reports to the UN’s membership.

If we take the world’s governments at their word, there can be little doubt that the international community has a responsibility to help protect Iraqis and Syrians from the reign of terror unleashed by IS in the Middle East. Whilst those efforts have helped stem the group’s advance, a redoubled effort will be needed to turn back the tide and establish conditions more conducive to the protection of people from vile atrocities that shock the very conscience of humankind.

Also in the series

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has emerged out of the power vacuum created by the Syria civil war. In a very short period of time the group has captured and held territory in both Syria and Iraq, which consequently gave rise to an international military coalition to stop the group. 


The dangerous myth of the female victim-fighter

Though their role within ISIS may differ, women’s motives for joining the group are just as diverse as men’s.
ISIS militants

Why the Islamic State actually stinks at social media

The conventional wisdom is that ISIS has managed to become so successful largely because of its social media prowess. The conventional wisdom is wrong.

ISIS, by the numbers

How many fighters? How many countries fighting ISIS? How many refugees?

Aiding ISIS victims: ‘We need access, not more funds’

Veteran humanitarian worker François Audet discusses the dilemmas ISIS has created for crisis-response operations.

How to win the battle against the ISIS propaganda machine

The online world is a crucial battleground.

On humanitarian efforts: Defeating ISIS is not the end

The widespread displacement ISIS has caused will have consequences for years to come.