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Why Responsibility to Protect Stumbled in Syria

One of the longest-running debates surrounding the Syrian war is that of the international community’s ethical responsibility to Syria’s civilians – in short, does the long-running violence require the world to intervene?

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

We asked David Rodin, a senior research fellow at Oxford University and a leading authority on the ethics of war and conflict, to weigh in on Responsibility to Protect, known as RtoP for short. The UN doctrine was created to protect populations from war crimes and crimes against humanity, authorizing the international community to take action against those guilty of mass atrocities. The Responsibility to Protect was invoked to justify global intervention in Libya in 2011, leading to the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi.

RtoP “is an emerging norm or law, depending on how you look at it, that essentially says that when a state is engaged in atrocities against its own people, or complicit, then there is a responsibility on behalf of the international community to do three things,” Rodin says. Those would be “to try and prevent those crimes, and if unable to prevent, then it has an obligation to actually take effective mergers to stop those crimes, and after crimes have taken place, to help rebuild that society.”

The idea was originally the brainchild of and sponsored by the Canadian government, which asked a group of distinguished international scholars and former politicians to come up with a set of guidelines for humanitarian intervention.

“They reported [their findings] in 2001, with a report that was very influential and was seen as mapping out a sensible and violent way of helping prevent mass atrocities against civilians,” Rodin says.

In 2005, it was debated by the UN General Assembly and a modified version was endorsed. It was formally incorporated by the UN Security Council itself on their resolution on their intervention in Libya. “That was seen as a pivotal moment for the idea,” he said.

Rodin describes the Responsibility to Protect as “an emerging law … a quasi-law. It’s a norm in the process of becoming a genuine law.”

But the Responsibility to Protect has hit a hurdle with Syria. A lack of international response to the crisis, despite the documentation of war crimes on both sides, has left many in the international community wondering if Syria has essentially halted the legitimization of Responsibility to Protect into an effective, actionable law.

“In the case of Syria, it seems clear to all impartial observers that the Syrian state has indeed been committing at least one and possibly several of those crimes … it would seem to be clear ground for the Security Council to intervene, as long as it was effective and proportionate,” says Rodin, pinpointing another stumbling block for the concept’s application.

“There needs to be a reasonable chance that it would be successful and not cause more harm than it would prevent.”

Rodin cites the global community’s lack of early action as a reason for the current stalemate. “The situation in Syria has got to what we have now because appropriate and effective measures weren’t taken 13 or 18 months ago when they might have had a much higher likelihood of working,” he says.

“Responsibility to Protect says that were a state creating atrocities against own population — they can be war crimes, crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing — then the international community has a responsibility to say the state is committing those crimes, to take measures through the Security Council to require them to stop committing those crimes.”

Rodin says that the case of Libya — seen as a successful humanitarian intervention — led to a revival of interest in the Responsibility to Protect, and wide optimism about its application to global crisis spots. That optimism faded as Syria’s war progressed.

Syria hasn’t killed the idea, Rodin says. “But the situation in Syria has caused people to really think again, because we have not seen a consensus on intervention. The UN Security Council has not seriously attempted to formulate a resolution addressing the situation, so for many people looking at Syria it seems it’s slipping into irrelevance.”

But, he says, that does not mean the concept will fade away.

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