The Complicated Concept of ‘R2P’: Why is Intervention so difficult?

 UNMIS Peacekeeper Assists Local Resident

‘When does the international community intervene for the sake of protecting populations?’ – Kofi Annan

The question of when states should intervene militarily in another state’s affairs in order to prevent or stop mass humanitarian atrocities is an old and well-travelled one – one that is currently visiting Syria. On Friday, With U.S President Barack Obama’s acknowledgement of the likely use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, the concept of military intervention has once again been highlighted on the international stage.

Whilst mandated under Article 42, Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, intervention in practice is a much contested and complicated concept, with norms of international law never far from consideration. Take Kosovo for example; when Slobodan Milosevic engaged in large-scale ethnic cleansing in 1999, the Security Council recognised the humanitarian catastrophe, but, as a result of the threat of a Russian veto, did not agree on a course to intervene.  Instead, NATO countries bombed Serbia, in what is seen by some as legitimate, but illegal.

In December 2001, in an effort to realise how military intervention could be reconciled with Article 2.7 of the UN Charter, which upholds member states’ domestic jurisdiction, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), established by the Canadian government, released a report; ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ or ‘R2P’. The report presented the idea that sovereignty was actually a responsibility, not a right, and that the international community had a duty to act in order to prevent mass atrocities. Whilst economic, political and social measures were to be used along with diplomatic engagement, military intervention was presented as a last resort.

The concept of R2P, pioneered by the ICISS, was integrated into the UN mandate through Security Council Resolution 1674, which for the first time, affirmed that the UN felt the international community had a responsibility to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing when national governments fail to do so.

Whilst R2P has been some by some as a noble failure, 2011 saw R2P used as justification for resolution 1973, which permitted NATO forces to utilise military force against the forces of Colonel Gaddafi. Whilst the Libyan case pragmatically illustrated that R2P was not merely a theory, it did highlight some more of the key problems surrounding R2P. Various member-states, China and Russia among them, felt that NATO exploited the situation to manufacture regime change, rather than to protect the Libyan people. Given that the UN sanctioned intervention in Libya, why then has the same not applied to Syria, where the regime of Al-Assad continues to commit grievous crimes against the Syrian people?

Firstly, R2P rests, not only on the notion of ‘right’ intentions, but also on the existence of a reasonable prospect of success. Observers have highlighted key physical and military differences between Libya and Syria, which would make the no-fly zones and no-drive zones, which were so influential in Libya, very difficult to reconstruct, and so the successful strategies used in Libya may not be replicated.

Secondly, an intervention could lead to a protracted war that would only lead to furthering the humanitarian catastrophe. Kuperman has hypothesised that when rebels are assisted by outside forces, they are unintentionally encouraged to become more reckless, and less open to negotiations – This idea has been termed the ‘moral hazard of humanitarian intervention’, and this situation would only lead to a situation of prolonged warfare – a situation that is all too familiar in the Middle East, a situation that would preferably be avoided.

Thirdly, as a result of the complex underlying power situation within Syria, the deposing of the Assad regime could potentially empower Islamist factions from the far-right, which would spell further violations of human rights in the future; a simple glimpse at the Mujahidin roots of the Taliban is evidence of this.

Despite these difficulties, one thing is certain; something must be done about Syria. The chemical weapons issue has brought matters to a head, the red line has been crossed, and the UN has a difficult call to make.


Dan Flear

Kuperman, A. 2008. ‘The Moral Hazard of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans’, International Studies Quarterly, 52:1, pp. 49-80.