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‘Responsibility to Protect’ Is One More Casualty of the Syrian War

The conflict’s impact on the world’s ability to prevent atrocities will be felt for years to come.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National.
A man carries a girl on his shoulder as she holds a flag of the Syrian opposition during a protest in the village of Atme in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib on March 15.
A man carries a girl on his shoulder as she holds a flag of the Syrian opposition during a protest in the village of Atme in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib on March 15. RAMI AL SAYED/AFP via Getty Images

Watching the Syrian revolution-turned-war enter its second decade means recounting all that has been lost: innocent lives cut short, razed cities, dashed dreams. We can also mourn the squandered potential of young Syrians stuck in displacement camps missing another year of education. The estimated casualties include almost 400,000 Syrians killed and another 200,000 missing. The United Nations no longer tallies any authoritative numbers after abandoning efforts to count civilian losses three years into the conflict—one of many instances of the international community failing in its obligations to Syrians.

What is certain is that the toll is huge and that it is not limited to Syria and its people. Among the casualties—with far-reaching implications for other bloody conflicts around the world—are a number of international norms that were supposed to limit the suffering of civilian populations. The principal norm that has been shattered in Syria is the doctrine of “responsibility to protect.” Often abbreviated as R2P, the doctrine holds that the international community has not just a right but an obligation to intervene in conflicts where atrocities are being committed against civilian populations. First championed by Western countries in the 1990s and later accepted by the U.N., R2P was incapable of surviving the Syrian conflict. Its death marks a moment of failure of the international system that was emerging at the end of the Cold War. What will take its place is not yet known. As the world seems to be entering a new era of geostrategic competition and superpower polarization, there is no guarantee that a collectively acceptable humanitarian order will emerge.

According to the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, R2P “embodies a political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution. It seeks to narrow the gap between Member States’ pre-existing obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law and the reality faced by populations at risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

Watching the Syrian revolution-turned-war enter its second decade means recounting all that has been lost: innocent lives cut short, razed cities, dashed dreams. We can also mourn the squandered potential of young Syrians stuck in displacement camps missing another year of education. The estimated casualties include almost 400,000 Syrians killed and another 200,000 missing. The United Nations no longer tallies any authoritative numbers after abandoning efforts to count civilian losses three years into the conflict—one of many instances of the international community failing in its obligations to Syrians.

What is certain is that the toll is huge and that it is not limited to Syria and its people. Among the casualties—with far-reaching implications for other bloody conflicts around the world—are a number of international norms that were supposed to limit the suffering of civilian populations. The principal norm that has been shattered in Syria is the doctrine of “responsibility to protect.” Often abbreviated as R2P, the doctrine holds that the international community has not just a right but an obligation to intervene in conflicts where atrocities are being committed against civilian populations. First championed by Western countries in the 1990s and later accepted by the U.N., R2P was incapable of surviving the Syrian conflict. Its death marks a moment of failure of the international system that was emerging at the end of the Cold War. What will take its place is not yet known. As the world seems to be entering a new era of geostrategic competition and superpower polarization, there is no guarantee that a collectively acceptable humanitarian order will emerge.

According to the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, R2P “embodies a political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution. It seeks to narrow the gap between Member States’ pre-existing obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law and the reality faced by populations at risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

The “responsibility to protect” was a concept that humanitarians and U.N. officials had sought to enshrine for years. Discussions about the responsibility of sovereign states to protect their citizens—and for the international community to intervene if they don’t—were driven by the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and the Balkan massacres of the late 20th century. Its antecedents include the so-called Blair Doctrine, which held that if diplomatic options are exhausted and a specific military intervention can be applied to right a wrong, then that intervention should be advocated. Another influential proponent of what became R2P was then-German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who in the 1990s told pacifist Germans that preventing a genocide against Muslims in the Balkans justified military intervention against the Serbs. But it wasn’t until 2005 that U.N. member states formally committed to the principle of R2P. Despite the fact that all member states signed on, the United States as the leading superpower was considered the driving force behind its implementation.

The U.N. has issued empty statements of condemnation, held heated Security Council meetings, and ineffectively demanded restraint.

At its heart, R2P is supposed to ensure that all civilians have a fundamental right to be protected from the worst of the world’s depravities. Yet from the start, the doctrine had several fundamental flaws that would make its implementation difficult—and ultimately lead to its demise on the killing fields of Syria. For one: What constitutes humanitarian crimes so grave that the international community is obliged to ignore a U.N. member state’s sovereignty and intervene, whether through peaceful or military means? Who should then intervene, and how? What if the offending state is a client of a superpower, which can block any decision to invoke R2P in the U.N. Security Council?

No one can claim to be unaware of the massive scale of human rights violations that took place and continue to take place in Syria. This has been one of the most documented of wars, thanks in large part to courageous citizen journalists risking their lives on the ground in Syria. But the war has also suffered from a tremendous flood of propaganda and targeted disinformation to confuse the public and media, with the effect of undermining trust in the information coming out of the embattled country.

The blatant and targeted attacks on hospitals and medical centers, the bombing of entire cities, the assassinations of journalists, and the use of siege and surrender tactics are some of the most egregious human rights infractions. In response, the U.N. has issued empty statements of condemnation, held heated Security Council meetings, and ineffectively demanded restraint.

The Syrian war once again showed the futility of the U.N. Security Council, whose members routinely abuse their veto power to protect their clients. The United States, United Kingdom, and France support the Syrian opposition; Russia supports the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad; and China rejects the idea of intervening to overthrow his rule. The nature of the U.N. system, in particular the structure of the Security Council, was ultimately responsible for killing any chance to implement R2P.

Another reoccurring battle in U.N. corridors in New York and Geneva was the effort to provide humanitarian aid to Syrians in rebel-held territories across the Turkish and Iraqi borders, rather than solely through government-controlled Damascus, where the likelihood of any aid reaching its intended recipients would have been small. Precious months of negotiations at the U.N. went into reaching an agreement on the delivery of this aid, instead of focusing on reaching a viable solution to the Syrian crisis as a whole. Last July, Russia and China vetoed a draft Security Council resolution that would have allowed the delivery of humanitarian supplies via Iraq and Turkey, limiting delivery to rebel-controlled areas through only one border crossing with Turkey. The wrangling over which border crossings could be used for the delivery of essential aid illustrates once again how senseless politicking completely disregards R2P. Next month, the Security Council is scheduled to discuss aid delivery again as a U.N. agreement to allow cross-border deliveries through Bab al-Hawa in northwest Syria is due to expire. Its renewal is likely to be held up by Russia and its demands for concessions in return.

But the path to the death of R2P in Syria was set long before, in September 2013. One of the few points almost all countries can agree on, including the members of the Security Council, is that the use of chemical and biological weapons cannot be tolerated. Indeed, then-U.S. President Barack Obama had named the use of chemical weapons as the “red line” that would change his calculus in dealing with Syria. But when Assad’s forces actually used chemical weapons against Syrians in late August of that year, Obama hesitated and ultimately refused to act. So did the U.N., and the wheels were set in motion to abandon the concept of protecting Syrians from the worst forms of warfare.

If neither the United Nations, nor the world’s still-leading superpower, nor the so-called international community can commit to protecting civilians from chemical and biological warfare, in what instance would any of them ever act?

In March, the U.N. special advisor on the prevention of genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, and the U.N. special advisor on the responsibility to protect, Karen Smith, issued a joint statement expressing their “deep concern” over the continued crisis in Syria. Since the start of the conflict in 2011, the special advisors and their predecessors have issued 19 public statements raising alarm about various crimes being committed in Syria, none of which has made an iota of difference to Syrians. There could not be a better demonstration of the weakness of the U.N. to effect change, notwithstanding the vital role of its humanitarian agencies, including UNICEF, the World Food Program, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in saving countless Syrian lives.

The question is whether the world will be able to come up with an alternative to R2P. That Syria’s lessons will be learned and the R2P principle will be reinstated seems unlikely, given the U.N. status quo. Another option might be an alternative mechanism that either bypasses the Security Council or the U.N. altogether. The most likely route, it seems, is that the concept of collective responsibility is abandoned altogether, leaving the world’s most vulnerable without any rights or protections in times of conflict. That is not a route that anyone should champion or feel comfortable with.

Ultimately, the responsibility to protect its own people lies with the government of any nation. But the “responsibility to protect” doctrine was meant to create a safety net when a government fails to provide that protection or, worse still, targets its own people. With the doctrine’s death in Syria, the war’s impact on international relations, on the legitimacy of the U.N., and on the world’s ability to deal with atrocities and war crimes will also be felt for years to come. If the world cannot learn from its collective failure to protect the Syrian people and cannot find other ways to avoid the reoccurrence of such tragedy, the future looks morbid indeed.

Mina Al-Oraibi is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National. Twitter: @AlOraibi

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