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Saving R2P from Syria

Syria has put R2P on trial. The world should defend it argues Patrick Quinton-Brown.

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14 August, 2012
By: Patrick Quinton-Brown
MPhil (International Relations) candidate at Oxford University

Kofi Annan’s resignation as special envoy for Syria affirms that the Syrian peace process has reached a disturbing impasse. With the Security Council trapped in a cycle of finger-pointing and name-calling, the institutions of the international community have become embarrassingly irrelevant in the prevention of what is now best described as civil war.

In a recent CIC blog post, Jennifer Welsh predicted a revival of the kind of council inaction that existed during the Cold War. She reminds us that during the conflict between India and Pakistan in the 1970s, the council was unable to bear the weight of the expectations placed on it. If this is again to be the case, what could stalemate mean for the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) principle?


Both critics and advocates agree that Syria is putting R2P in crisis. If the principle is to serve as an international norm and moral imperative to stop mass atrocities, why has it failed to prompt any form of binding resolution from the UN? The third pillar of R2P clearly states that when a state fails to uphold its responsibility to protect, the international community has an obligation to intervene by diplomatic, economic, or, if necessary, military means. Alex Bellamy and Tim Dunne claim that the crisis has put R2P “on trial.” Others are predicting the “failure of an idea” and telling us, “R2P, RIP.” However, the world can, and should, save R2P from a death sentence in Syria.

At least rhetorically, both China and Russia justify their vetoes by suggesting that sanctions – or any other kind of coercion, for that matter – will only intensify the flames of the conflict. Moreover, in a manner that Susan Rice describes as “paranoid,” they predict the West will deceptively interpret resolutions to justify military intervention and regime change. To these states and their allies, the language of protection that has characterized recent council debates is simply a moral guise for military recklessness intended to advance national interests.

The current deadlock cannot be understood in isolation from the Libyan experience, which appears to have set an unfortunate precedent for intervention. Instead of lending credibility, R2P implementation in Libya only fuelled suspicions that the principle is synonymous with regime change and loose resolution interpretations. Many of the same states that abstain or vote against resolutions addressing Syria also accuse the West of abusing the wording of Resolution 1973.

Thus, to dissenters, R2P is a tool for political agendas first, and the protection of civilians second. If this is one reason R2P has been put “on trial” in Syria, then the international community has a strong rebuttal. Now is a prime opportunity to experiment with Brazil’s “responsibility while protecting” (RWP) idea. As Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said in her opening address to the General Assembly, “much is said about the responsibility to protect; yet we hear little about responsibility in protecting.”

Brazil introduced the idea of RWP to the United Nations in September 2011. Holding that some military interventions can in fact aggravate existing conflicts and give rise to new cycles of violence against civilians, RWP aims to clarify the third pillar of R2P as adopted at the 2005 World Summit. Crucially, it is intended to complement R2P rather than replace it.

In brief, RWP reaffirms that prevention is always better than cure. In the event that prevention fails, however, it does not prohibit economic or military coercion. The usefulness of RWP is that it requires intervention to follow a specific set of criteria: It must be a last resort, produce as little violence as possible, and cannot cause more harm than it was authorized to prevent. Most significantly, RWP also mandates that intervention be “judicious, proportionate and limited to the objectives established by the Security Council.” In addition, RWP calls for the creation of enhanced Security Council procedures to monitor and assess the manner in which resolutions are interpreted.

Thus, RWP addresses the criticisms of R2P as argued in the Security Council today. A forthcoming study by the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect reveals that RWP responds to thematic critiques common to all R2P rejectionist states since 2005. This includes fears of western imperialism or “neocolonialism,” selectivity, double standards, resolution abuse, and regime change. Although no one is admitting it, RWP seems to be telling the world that R2P implementation does not need to look like the Libyan campaign.

Tellingly, China, Russia, India, and other “R2P rejectionists” have supported the principle with a confidence that contrasts their cautiousness towards R2P. China and India have both publicly “welcomed” RWP. Russia has committed that it “will participate constructively in developing [the] idea.” Local BRICS commentaries have even weighed in on the debate and offered their approval of Brazil’s idea.

If presented as a complement to R2P instead of its replacement, Brazil’s contribution can also win the support of western states. Although the United States has expressed some hesitations towards RWP, its attitude is beginning to soften. Indeed, the superpower recently announced, “there is much in the spirit of Brazil’s paper with which we agree.” Prominent R2P intellectuals such as Gareth Evans have called RWP “a way forward” with regard to the future of protecting civilians. Significantly, Ban Ki-Moon, Francis Deng, and Edward Luck have also put their weight behind the concept. It’s clear that Brazil’s idea can help revive the legitimacy of R2P in council debates.

As founder of the RWP principle, Brazil is the best state to push this idea forward. However, Brazil needs to strike while the iron is hot. In the midst of the Syrian crisis, it has failed to bring RWP into public debate and official statements. One also cannot help but recall Rousseff’s ongoing opposition to UN sanctions and intervention against Damascus. By failing to speak up on RWP in Syria, Brazil appears to be adopting the same hypocrisy its new idea is committed to abolishing. It is also missing a fundamental opportunity to assert itself as an emerging middle power.

Save for a few commentators such as Oliver Stuenkel and Matias Spektor, who have both very aptly argued new viewpoints on Syria and RWP, discussions are also lacking in the academic and civil-society arena. An upcoming UN dialogue on R2P’s third pillar is scheduled for Sept. 5. If R2P is to ever gain the full support of dissenter states such as China or Russia, scholars and stakeholders must work to ensure RWP gets more attention. Considering Canada’s unique role in founding R2P back in 2001, Canadians especially have an obligation to contribute to this evolution of the principle.

Realistically, RWP alone won’t put an end to the Security Council deadlock. However, it does present one avenue to neutralize dissenters’ rhetoric and rescue the normative development of R2P from contamination in Syria. If dissenters no longer fear R2P’s ambiguities of implementation, they can more confidently employ R2P language in UN debates and approve related resolutions. In this way, RWP is bound to broaden and deepen the global consensus on R2P. 

In the coming weeks, resolution provisions that reflect the tenets of RWP might also play a role in turning Chinese and Russian vetoes into abstentions. It is widely accepted, even by the R2P advocates so commonly depicted as “idealists,” that western military intervention in Syria could make the threat of mass atrocities worse, not better. A resolution explicitly stating such a conclusion would embrace the spirit of RWP and possibly influence dissenters into being more constructive on diplomatic and economic solutions for peace.

However, could the adoption of Brazil’s concept backfire and dilute, rather than rescue, the normative development of R2P? The most pressing question not yet addressed in the available literature on RWP is the impact of norm competition. Of course, the costs of winning over dissenter states must not outweigh the benefits. To address this concern, it is worth remembering that RWP is not intended to develop into a separate norm itself, but rather into a component of R2P’s third-pillar vocabulary.

Syria does not have to mark the end of a good idea. While recognizing the national interests at play in the crisis, the world must also emphasize the common interests in preventing further militarization. The alternative is a return to the nightmarish inaction that characterized Rwanda, Bosnia, and other such tragedies. The future of one of the world’s most promising international norms depends on our continued persistence to win over dissenter states such as Russia and China.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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