Considered as a core principle for human security, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, henceforward R2P, has gained momentum as a toolbox used to protect civilians from suffering mass human-induced violence. The formulation of the norm was catalyzed by two key events, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the Kosovo war in 1999. The R2P doctrine, which represents and evolution of the thinking of human rights, was embraced by the United Nations (UN) during the 2005 World Summit and endorsed by the UN General Assembly the same year during the 60th session (UN, 2005).
Throughout its three pillars, the R2P attributes the international community the obligation to ensure that the sovereign states exercises their citizen’s protection responsibilities in a timely and effective manner. The norm is aiming to fill any gap of compliance with the duty of protecting civilians by the sovereign states. The R2P doctrine reshaped the concept of sovereignty, by establishing a set of principles for the international intervention should a violation of any of the four protected core crimes be committed (ICISS, 2001).
In addition to its claimed potential corrosive effects, the R2P doctrine has received many critics over the years and continues being controversial. In many occasions, a misconception of the norm mixed with the different intervention criteria and structural problems have polarized opinions. In this context, the intervention in Libya vs the non-intervention in Syria has catalyzed an intense debate about the efficacy of the R2P doctrine, generating different levels of adherence to the norm within the international community. While the intervention in Libya demonstrated the R2P’s capacity to gather support and quickly mobilize a force, the non-intervention in Syria just highlighted the limitations of the norm (Keeler, 2011).
Indeed, the debate around the intervention in Syria was not about how to apply the humanitarian principles aim to prevent harm to civilians but about the self-interest of Russia and China using their veto power to torpedo Security Council resolutions on Syria. In this context, a significant number of academics claim that the different principles applied by the Security Council in both interventions have been led by hidden political agendas with marked positions. (Silander, 2013).
Likewise, the permanent five members continue to prioritize their geopolitical national interests over the protection of human rights. The possibility to tilt the delicate balance power in the region has overcome the atrocities committed in Syria. Like this, despite that the 5 years of conflict over 260,000 people have been killed, 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and the conflict shows no sign of abating, the United Nations is yet struggling to respond to the challenge. Although, as noted by Petrasek, the R2P is more than a doctrine for military intervention and provide the Security Council has not taken any step to enforce other coercive measures available (Petrasek, 2013). For instance, the mass atrocities committed in Syria by President Assad could have been referred to the International Criminal Court, in addition, to explore the possibility to impose arms embargoes or no fly zones.
The facts above only stress one of the R2P’s structural problems. As witnessed in Libya, the notion of an intervention is difficult to imagine without a country’s self-interests behind, at the same time these very same hidden agendas complicate the task of preventive interventions. Although the war in Syria has reached by far the threshold of requirements established in the R2P doctrine, the mechanisms triggering the response to the violations are lost in a series of politicized decisions unable to build enough consensus to act. Perhaps, as a result to the intervention in Libya where a resolution that was based on humanitarian grounds turned out to be only a change of regime.
Generally speaking, although detractors have decline over the years, the R2P’s intent to equal the importance of the individual and the state sovereignty has not met yet the large expectations. It could be concluded that the R2P ability’s to effect a neutral intervention has been lost due to its slow and selective implementation. Nowadays, the use of the veto power is inconsistent with the core value of saving lives embedded in the R2P doctrine.
The following reasons have been identified as key factors preventing appropriate or effective action to address the issue:
- The hidden political agendas embedding geographical interest and different regional strategies. It is necessary to develop political commitment through a security sector reform and a much needed reform of the Security Council’s the veto system.
- The different criteria when applying the R2P principles. The norm should be promoted outside the existing framework policies. It is paramount to develop alternatives to the military intervention such as economic sanctions, no fly zones or a deeper involvement of the International Criminal Court.
- The lack of effective early warning system and capabilities specifically allocated have prevented an effective and efficient response.
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001) The Responsibility to Protect, Ottawa: ICISS.
Keeler, C. (2011) ‘The End of the Responsibility to Protect?’, Foreign Policy Journal, 12th October: 11.
Petrasek, D. (2013) ‘R2P – hindrance not a help in the Syrian crisis’, https://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/david-petrasek/r2p-%E2%80%93-hindrance-not-help-in-syrian-crisis, (accessed 4th April 2016).
Silander, D. (2013) ‘R2P-Principle and Practice The UNSC in Libya’, Journal of Applied Security Research, 25th March: 13.
United Nations (2005) A/RES/60/01 2005 World Summit Outcome New York: UNGA.