A Reflection on Responsibility: What Does Syria Mean for R2P?

By Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock

Published in Diplomat Magazine, October 4, 2012

The world has watched in frustration as the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad of Syria has turned its weapons against its own citizens to suppress an insurgency and cling to power. The shocking estimates of civilian casualties (some as high as 20,000) don’t measure the untold misery of the displaced who have poured over the country’s borders in their tens of thousands, or sought uncertain shelter in the besieged cities. The violence of the Assad regime surpasses anything Gadhafi ever threatened. Meanwhile, Assad’s false promises and cynical disdain have frustrated efforts to find a diplomatic solution. So we are left to watch a ruthless tyrant engage in the systematic murder of his own people.

But had we not resolved after Rwanda, after Bosnia, after Kosovo, that the international community would no longer stand by and witness mass atrocity inflicted by states against their own people? Did we not decide collectively that if a state’s government fails in its most fundamental responsibility to protect its own population from such horrors, that the world, with United Nations Security Council authority, would intervene to provide that protection? And did we not do just that, last year, in Libya? To be sure, Syria presents the Security Council with a more complex challenge than it faced in Libya. The complicated neighbourhood, its intersecting alliances and the larger drama playing out over Iran make the situation most difficult. And the Syrian army is literally a “force to be reckoned with” and any military intervention would surely be long and costly in lives and treasure.

But the council’s failure to invoke even the spirit of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Syria — Russia and China went so far as to veto sanctions under Chapter 7 of the charter because that is the chapter that might eventually be invoked to authorize military force — demonstrates not only the difficulty of the case, but also a deep suspicion of the R2P doctrine itself. What explains this aggressive attitude towards R2P? What does it mean for the nascent norm’s future? Can this opposition be overcome, and can R2P remain viable? To understand what is at stake and the political currents at play, we must first look at the recent history of initiatives aimed at protecting vulnerable populations when their own governments are unwilling or unable to do so….

Read the rest of this article on the Diplomat Magazine website.

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