Syria, the United Nations, and the Responsibility to Protect

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The crisis in Syria has exposed both the power and the fragility of the UN system, and it has highlighted the limited power exerted by norms of intervention to sway governments to action. I focus in this brief comment on one aspect of the situation: the question of a responsibility to protect (R2P), and what we can learn about R2P from the activities of the United Nations in Syria.

R2P began as an idea put forward by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), an independent body established in response to the failures of the international community in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. (1) Facing questions not only about how to generate political will to intervene in humanitarian crises, but also about how to overcome the paralyzing force of the Security Council veto, the ICISS articulated as the core of R2P the notion that "sovereignty implies responsibility." (2) As a result of this foundational understanding, the ICISS asserted in its 2001 report that every government has a responsibility to protect its own people. Moreover, if a government fails this duty, then the international community has a responsibility to step in and intervene. (3)

R2P encapsulates a range of actions. Beyond urging reaction to atrocities, it also consists of a responsibility to prevent and a responsibility to rebuild. (4) Nonetheless, it is the responsibility to react that has earned the most attention, and it is the responsibility of the international community, rather than that of the territorial government, that has generated the most controversy. (5) This controversy is at least somewhat unwarranted, as the ICISS was relatively measured in its call for a new sense of responsibility on the part of the international community. Contrary to some interpretations, it did not advocate an overthrow of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter; instead, it recommended that military intervention, when necessary, should take place through the Security Council. (6) The report warned, however, that should the Security Council fail to discharge its responsibility to protect, it might suffer a crisis of legitimacy. Still, the ICISS did not go so far as to recommend that individual states should undertake military intervention without Council authorization. Instead, the report notes that states "may not rule out other means" to discharge their responsibility if the Council fails to act. (7) "[M]ay" should be read as "might"--an expression of possibility, but not of permission; states might act outside of the Council, so the Council should be careful to take seriously its responsibility for international peace and security. (8)

The original ICISS report thus urged a responsibility on the part of the Security Council to take action in the face of massive human rights abuses. After R2P made its way through the United Nations, however, it looked quite different. The concept was taken up in debate at the 2005 World Summit, and the resulting Outcome Document included a section on R2P. This was heralded as a triumph, an "embrace" of R2P. (9) A closer look at what was adopted in the Outcome Document, however, makes clear that this was a drastically stripped-down version of the concept. The Outcome Document expressed support for the notion that a government has a responsibility toward its own people, (10) and it recognized the international community's responsibility "to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means ... to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity." (11) With respect to coercive measures, however, the Outcome Document diverged sharply from the ICISS's original proposal. Instead of articulating any responsibility, the Outcome Document stated only that governments were "prepared" to use coercive measures "on a case-by-case basis." (12) By the time the concept emerged from the United Nations, there was little responsibility left in the responsibility to protect. …


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