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Searching for Solutions in Syria:

Questions Concerning the Application of R2P

By MICHELLE EBERHARD

One of the most troubling crises in our world today is the conflict in Syria, where the United Nations estimates that 70,000 civilians have been killed and millions more people are displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance. The unrest, which began in the spring of 2011 with public uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s repressive governance tactics, quickly escalated into violence from both sides when the military started opening fire on groups of demonstrators, who subsequently formed an opposition government comprised of several rebel factions. The Syrian government pushed the envelope even further when it was discovered in November of last year that its troops were mixing chemicals necessary for carrying out a campaign of chemical warfare. While a potential catastrophe was likely avoided due to immediate condemnation from the United States and the rest of the international community, the fact remains that Syria has the capacity to use these weapons at a later time. More important, despite various efforts to end the conflict, neither Syria’s opposition forces — which have also been shown to be committing crimes against humanity — nor the United Nations has been able to stop President Assad’s murderous attack on civilians, which has resulted in continued destruction of life.

The world community acknowledges that the crimes and atrocities being perpetuated in Syria must end. However, the means by which such an outcome might be achieved remain a topic of debate. In an effort to facilitate discussion around this dilemma, the Peace Islands Institute’s Center for Global Affairs and the Istanbul-based Journalists and Writers Foundation collaborated to host an event on February 28 titled Responsibility to Protect: Implications to the Crises in Syria and Other Nations.”

The program included brief remarks from moderator Roy S. Lee, the permanent observer for the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization to the United Nations and adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School, as well as presentations from Ambassador Herman Schaper, Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the United Nations in New York, and Michael Doyle, the Harold Brown Professor of International Affairs, Law and Political Science at Columbia University.

Lee opened the program by addressing the dire circumstances in Syria. Specifically, he referenced nations’ attempts to persuade the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to refer Syria’s case to the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as the UNSC’s rejection of a draft resolution that would have “come close to Chapter VII actions.” He also highlighted Syria’s recent mobilization of chemical weapons and cited growing concerns among human rights groups that “the time to act is already overdue,” meaning that the next step is to invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Finally, he noted the United States’ announcement earlier that day that it would be pledging $60 million to assist opposition parties in Syria.

Following Lee’s introduction, Ambassador Schaper began by contrasting the action taken in Libya and the inaction in Syria with respect to the norm of R2P, highlighting how R2P itself was created with the intention of acting as a bridge between moral responsibility and legal obligations. In particular, Schaper referenced paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, which appear under the heading of “responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” and assert that while primary responsibility to protect lies with states themselves, the international community also has the duty to take collective action through the UNSC if states “manifestly fail” to uphold this responsibility. As such, Schaper called R2P an emerging norm that represents a “fundamental shift in the doctrine of sovereignty” and reflects “growing acceptance [of the belief that] a state is at the service of its citizens,” and not the other way around. In a similar way, he explained, “whether to act instead became an issue of how and when to act.”

Referring to recent successes of R2P in places like Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, and Libya, Schaper affirmed that “Syria is clearly an R2P situation” due to the crimes there, as well as the “clarity that the government of Syria is manifestly failing in its responsibility to protect.” He continually supported the use of R2P, given its validity, which lies in its “necessary legal basis through resolutions of the Security Council,” and suggested that the only viable option for Syria is to “go for a unified international approach to find a solution through a political tract.”

Professor Doyle expressed similar views, calling R2P “special” and “a landmark development in the international norm of human security.” Doyle’s subsequent remarks centered on what he termed the simultaneous license and leash offered by R2P. The license, he argued, is the capacity to “go beyond standard legal provisions seen in the UN Charter,” so as to invoke the “use of residual pressure” in crises like Syria. In contrast, the leash is represented by a restriction on the use of force to cover only four crimes (genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity), as well as on the authority for making such a determination – that is, a resolution issued by the UNSC.

After providing a quick overview of international law in relation to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Doyle moved to the topic of legitimacy, and the question concerning when force could be used without UNSC approval. This discussion, he stated, was the impetus for the creation of the Canadian-led International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which produced R2P in 2001 and presented it at the 2005 UN World Summit. In essence, by successfully narrowing down triggers for the use of force, R2P was viewed as something “that was within the purview of the Security Council,” and reflected both a license – the affirmation that the Security Council can, indeed, protect individuals – and a leash – that this exclusive authority is attached only to the UNSC.

In practice, Doyle cited the same examples mentioned by Schaper, and added a few words on the implications of R2P’s use in Libya and, so far, non-use in Syria, stating that some countries might now be feeling “buyer’s remorse.” Given that the crisis in Libya resulted in the death of Muammar Gaddafi and a subsequent regime change, Doyle commented on countries’ fears that R2P might be used in the future for purposes it was not initially intended to address. Nonetheless, Doyle strongly supported the positive potential offered by use of R2P in Syria, and offered two suggestions for action. First, he indicated the need for another conversation to take place on the circumstances under which R2P should be used. Second, Doyle said the UNSC should set up a subcommittee to monitor the implementation of R2P, upon its being authorized. The alternative, he surmised, would be a continued stalemate in Syria.

One of the most important concerns raised in the question-and-answer session was how to measure what is a “reasonable chance of success” as justification for military force under R2P. Doyle responded by underlining how difficult it is to ever prove successful prevention, as “we won’t know that [crimes] haven’t taken place” and thus cannot produce tangible evidence to support such claims. However, he did emphasize that the most essential component is the responsibility to rebuild – to help a people reestablish their own state – because “it would be a sad commentary on R2P if it was only [used for] military purposes.” Doyle concluded with perhaps an even better remark on “reasonable chance” criteria, insisting that success should truly be measured by whether or not it was acceptable to and accepted by those it hoped to – and hopefully did – protect.

Photo: Michelle Eberhard

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