As Syrian deaths mount, ‘responsibility to protect’ takes a hit
LONDON - As civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo are battered by air strikes, ground offensives and shelling, what has happened to the world’s responsibility to protect populations under threat? The Geneva Conventions and the UN Security Council were established after World War II to maintain peace and protect people in conflict zones.
But a 21st-century UN doctrine called Responsibility to Protect (R2P), set up by the world body’s members to prevent mass killings, has had limited success.
Although formalised in 2005, R2P came about largely in response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which extremist Hutu militiamen slaughtered 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The doctrine also stemmed from a desire to prevent a recurrence of atrocities such as the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serb forces in Srebrenica.
It placed the onus on the international community to “use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means” to protect populations from crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
Examples include NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 to protect the people of Kosovo and the United Nations’ administration of East Timor as Indonesian troops departed, experts say.
But now, R2P is a merely a “high moral aspiration” that has foundered on the complex realities of warfare today, according to Paddy Ashdown, a British lawmaker who served as high representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002- 06.
Ashdown, who was among Western politicians to call for military intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s, said the world had become reluctant to get involved in messy, protracted conflicts.
“R2P has diminished from a high hope into an interesting collection of words lying on the table,” Ashdown said.
Ashdown, a former leader of the British opposition Liberal Democrats Party, was speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation for a short film titled Responsibility to Protect?
Conflict situations since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 have shown the West to be incapable of developing sound intervention strategies that protect civilians, Ashdown said.
In Libya, eight years later, the United States, Britain and their allies were criticised for failing to foster peace after the removal of Muammar Qaddafi from power. The Islamic State (ISIS) took over the former leader’s home city of Sirte a year ago as militants profited from the chaos that followed his death in 2011.
A deepening rift between Russia and the West, made worse by the Ukraine crisis in 2014, has left the Security Council deadlocked in efforts to foster peace in Syria, where Russia backs the government of President Bashar Assad.
“Whenever the world has been challenged to enact for instance in Libya, or particularly in Syria, we’ve failed to come up to the mark,” Ashdown said.
“Syria is a case that’s begging for Responsibility to Protect and no one is showing any responsibility whatever,” said Michael Ignatieff, an academic and specialist on humanitarian intervention.
“So it’s as relevant as ever, normatively, morally, in terms of our conscience, but it is a dead letter internationally,” Ignatieff said.
One problem is that R2P stems from a 19th-century concept of international relations in which states should intervene “when a country is unable or unwilling to protect its own population”, said Ghassan Salame, a former senior adviser to the UN secretary-general.
“But R2P has also suffered from a general decline of the ideological impact of the West on the rest of the world,” Salame said.
Trust in the West’s ability to resolve conflicts and build peace took a nose dive after R2P was invoked in Libya in 2011 to stop Qaddafi killing his own people, Salame and other experts said.
In March 2011, the Security Council passed a resolution endorsing military action to protect civilians against Qaddafi’s forces but after the Libyan leader’s overthrow and death, the country became mired in a slow-burn civil war between two rival governments, one in Tripoli and one in the east.
“In Libya we went in, we did the job… (then) we walked away instead of creating a network including for instance Turkey which would have helped to reconstruct a peace in Libya. It’s a bloody mess,” Ashdown said.
“By the way, so is Iraq,” he said.
Moves by the United States to depose governments or leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq during the presidency of George W. Bush, and, under President Barack Obama in Libya, are highly problematic for Responsibility to Protect, Salame said.
“This idea of regime change that can be done clinically without touching the state structure or without deconstruction of state society is, I hope, buried once and for all,” Salame said.
After two failed ceasefire agreements between the United States and Russia to end the fighting in Aleppo, a new round of talks was set up in Geneva to include Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which support Syrian opposition groups.
The Syria conflict highlights just how complex conflicts have become.
“We do not live in a world in which killing and dying remain safely confined within a sovereign state,” Ignatieff said, pointing to the refugee crisis in Europe stemming from war and instability in the Middle East.
“Look at Syria, it’s not just a lot of Syrians dying. It’s decisively affected the stability and cohesion of Europe,” he said.
But when it comes to establishing lasting peace, prevention is better than cure, the three experts said, which might prove important advice for the incoming UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres.
“I think he has to persuade the world that diplomacy has a bigger part to play in peace as high explosive does,” Ashdown said.
Thomson Reuters Foundation