The controversy over the latest chemical weapons attack in Syria highlights the declining credibility of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, and the need for the world to find a better solution, Ilja Richard Pavone writes.
According to available evidence, the recent sarin attack in Syria killing more than 80 people was most likely perpetrated by the Assad regime. That attack, and the consequent US cruise missile strike it provoked have revitalised debate within the United Nations Security Council and amongst legal scholars on the legitimacy of unilateral interventions as a response to grave breaches of international law. Yet due to Russia’s threat to use its veto power, the Security Council ultimately failed to adopt any resolution reminding the Syrian government of its responsibility to protect its own population. The stalemate demonstrates the limits of the theory of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and raises key questions about the future of the doctrine.
The Security Council emergency meeting on 7 April showed wide support for the US air strike, with Japan, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine all expressing support, and China abstaining from openly condemning it. Yet aside from a generic reference to the need to set up an impartial investigation to prosecute the perpetrators of the chemical attack, no other response was proposed during the meeting, nor was R2P mentioned.
In the absence of R2P, how is the world to deal with Security Council inaction and ongoing deadlock by the vetoes or threats of vetoes of one or more of the five Permanent Members (P5)?
The doctrine of R2P was realised in 2013 with the passing of Security Council Resolution 1973, for which both China and Russia abstained. The Resolution was adopted in response to the Libyan Civil War, and “authorised the use of all necessary means”, including the use of force under Article 42 of the UN Charter, with the goal of protecting civilians against the Gaddafi regime.
Despite optimism amongst R2P supporters that the Resolution could lead to the formation of a customary norm of international law on R2P, the military intervention in Libya ended up damaging the R2P cause. Originally authorised with the aim only of imposing a no-fly zone and ceasefire in Libya, NATO air strikes rapidly became involved in a regime change intervention.
The failure to comply with the original purpose of the NATO strike called into question the entire doctrine and its future implementation and laid the foundations for its current decline. Since the high-water mark of Libya, Russia and China have threatened to use their veto power to prevent any intervention in Syria, including in the wake of the 2013 Ghouta chemical attack.
In fact, the current discussion around Trump’s missile strike has mainly focused on the legality of the US intervention as a countermeasure to the infringement of the Chemical Weapons Convention, rather than as a response to a gross violation of human rights. The violation by the Assad regime of its duty to protect its own population has been pushed into the background.
It is clear that the purpose of the recent US intervention was not to alleviate the suffering of civilians. President Trump himself justified the air strike on the basis of the defence of US national security interests to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons. Indeed Trump has somewhat abandoned the ‘exportation of democracy’ rhetoric behind previous US-led unilateral actions in Latin America and Middle East, but has stressed the need to prevent further murders of Syria’s ‘beautiful babies’.
With the credibility of R2P at an all-time low, what options are available now to advance the doctrine, and to prevent and respond to other crises where governments are manifestly failing to protect their citizens?
The deal between the US and Russia for the chemical disarmament of Syria (Resolution 2118) has clearly failed. Either Assad prevented the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors from accessing chemical weapons storage facilities, or his government illegally produced chemical weapons like Sarin. Both cases are in clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and of Resolution 2113.
While the US unilateral strike, the only concrete response so far to the killing of civilians in Syria, is also a violation of international law, it is worth asking questions of its possible ‘legitimate’ benefits.
The US took a forceful countermeasure in response to grave breaches of international law, in a use of force that could be classified as of ‘lesser gravity’. In doing so it also respected the principles of proportionality and timeliness.
If the R2P doctrine is to avoid becoming the object of a sterile debate about principles and procedure, we should start thinking about how best to react to crimes against humanity, such as the use of chemical weapons, in the case of Security Council inaction.
There are many ideas out there, ranging from a reform of the veto system to humanitarian interventions performed through the General Assembly, to a possible pledge by the P5 members not to use their veto power (Responsibility not to Veto).
All of these avenues are worth exploring. But given that in Syria as well as elsewhere, civilians continue to be the main victims of internal wars, the world must find a solution quickly.