A Responsibility to Protect: Libya and Syria

By: Apratim Gautam

Within the international community, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) emerged recently as a doctrine endorsed and fostered by the United Nations. Two paragraphs in the 2005 UN General Assembly World Summit “Outcome Document" provided the philosophical basis for the formulation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine. Paragraphs 138 and 139 specifically outline the key tension in deciding how the international community should act to protect citizens of a sovereign state. Once a state has failed to protect its citizens, because it is unable or unwilling, R2P provides the basis from which the international community should act to protect said citizens of a state.

Courtesy of the Associated Press

Courtesy of the Associated Press

This doctrine recently has come under increasing pressure from the ostensible disparity in the international response to Libya and Syria, two tumultuous states involved in the Arab Spring. R2P was invoked in protecting Libyan citizens from a brutal dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. R2P has not been invoked yet in protecting Syrian citizens from a similarly, arguably more brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Critics of R2P argue that its aim is protection of civilians, not regime change, as occurred in Libya.  In the case of Libya and Syria, however, the protection of civilians and regime change appears inexorably linked. As ‘negotiations’ progressed, the loss of human life increased in both Syria and Libya, aided by the incessant bombing of civilian settlements.

The three main pillars of R2P refer first, to the responsibility of the sovereign state to protect its people; second to remind the international community to assist the state if the said state is unable; and, third to justify intervention by the international community if required, emphasising military intervention as a last resort. In March 2011, when Resolution 1973 was adopted by the UN invoking R2P approximately 4,000 Libyan civilians had been killed. Today in Syria, the death toll is estimated to be over 9,000, but R2P still not seen in the international community. Regime change is what Chinese and Russian officials feared when they recently vetoed a resolution on Syria in the Security Council.

Yet, when the consequence of inaction is the unabashed systematic murder of civilians in Syria, machinations over regime change is, at best, inadvertently complicit in the deaths of civilians. At worst, these machinations question the very foundation of R2P and the UN itself. It does raise legitimate fears that internationally unsupported unilateral acts of invasion could occur in the future with a new face attached to it. R2P, however, was itself created to prevent that from happening. In not using it, the international community has tacitly admitted it is not fit for purpose.

R2P has an admirable sentiment: the collective protection of human life by the international community from those that would wish to harm it. The inconsistencies, however, are clear. Regime change is sometimes unavoidable. It is a decision that should never be taken lightly, and it should always be taken in conjunction with wider global debate and regional organisations. When faced with mounting death tolls, however, the international community must be compelled to defend those being abused and murdered.

On March 25th, 1998 President Clinton apologised for the inaction of the global community with regards to the Rwandan Genocide. It was partly from this regret that R2P was born, and it was in wanting to avoid any similarity being drawn to the infamous 'humanitarian intervention’ line of the NATO invasion of Iraq that the nuances of state sovereignty versus the protection of human life were developed within the doctrine. R2P is failing to live up to its own expectations. The urgency of the situation is not in doubt. The efficacy of the tools the international community has at its disposal, however, faces challenges and the longer the paralysis continues, the greater the cost of individual life will be.

Apratim Gautam is a first year in the College.