Has the Concept of R2P gone by the Wayside Over the Syrian Conflict?

The term ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ is becoming widely accepted as a key international principle. None argue that a state has the right to treat its citizens in any way it wishes, even for its own survival. However, there have been numerous events that have shown this to be an ideal more than a reality, most notably Rwanda and Srebrenica. R2P is the response to these events. Does the Syrian conflict fall under R2P? Will this conflict and ensuing humanitarian disaster be different from previous failures to act?

There are some key areas that seem to invoke the R2P doctrine. The massive numbers of civilian deaths (70,000 by UN figures) as well as the widespread destruction of towns and mass civilian displacement (more than 2 million internally) are all horrific realities. However, the alleged use of chemical weapons is a potential war crime which must invoke an international response. In March, Ban Ki-moon and the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voiced their ‘deep concern about the alleged use of these deadly weapons in Syria’. The UN appeared unable to confirm the use of these weapons but stated that the ‘use of chemical weapons by any side in Syria would be a grave violation of international humanitarian law’. What the international community needs to know is, were they used and if so by whom? This information it would appear is hard to acquire but must be sought. Indeed the Secretary-General insisted that there must be ‘the timely flow to the United Nations decision makers of accurate… Information [regarding] the four crimes’ that invoke the R2P doctrine.

The Syrian government made a formal request to have these claims investigated by the UN, asserting that the opposition fighters were the real perpetrators of any chemical attack. However the regime delayed the granting of unfettered access for an investigating mission. The United States urged the Syrian regime to give full access to the UN, while simultaneously stating that their own intelligence showed the Assad regime had indeed used chemical weapons, which crossed a US ‘red line’. Obama asserted this act would mean the increasing of aid and assistance to the opposition. However, the responsibility of the international community is to protect civilians, not to aid one side of a conflict or the other, neither the opposition nor the Assad regime should be artificially granted victory by the international community.

Russia, in turn, openly doubts the validity of the US reports of the use of chemical weapons. Arguing it is a fabrication to legitimise the US position against Assad. Russia has responded with threats to increase support for the Syrian government.  Both the United States and Russia can be accused of picking sides and using a humanitarian disaster for political gain and power politics. Still, Russia also called for a full investigation by the United Nations into these allegations.

It appears the United States and Russia are involved in precisely the ‘hesitation and finger-pointing’ the Secretary-General warned of in his report on the implementation of the responsibility to protect.  There is still (unfortunately for the civilians in Syria, its refugees and many others in the world today) a wide gap, which the Secretary-General lamented, in the ‘forceful and timely response’ to such crimes and violations. The timely and decisive response, which the United Nations and the Secretary-General has called for, after three years of a worsening conflict and an ever increasing humanitarian disaster in Syria, has failed to manifest. When will the United Nations calls be heeded, and when will politics cease to be a factor in the application of the Security Council’s obligations?

There are some positive murmurings. The Secretary-General has acknowledged the call of the G8 for the granting of full access to the United Nations mission to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria and their commitment to bring all sides of the conflict to the negotiating table. There are many NGO’s involved with the supply of aid and assistance to the people of Syria and much the UN is doing independent of the Security Council’s big five. Still, a full peace deal is needed. Even if the conflict is not seen to fall within the remit of the R2P doctrine the international community must act. However, disagreements between Russia, France, UK, and United States are making the likelihood of a peace conference less likely. So the question still remains will the international community see this through, only time will tell.

Michael Stagg





http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44776&Cr=syria&Cr1=chemical#.Ucg_bZxuswI http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2013/sgsm15119.doc.htm http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/13/syria-chemical-weapons-white-house-text Implementing the responsibility to protect, Report of the Secretary-General, January 2009. http://www.latimes.com/news/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-russia-us-syria-chemical-weapons-20130614,0,4582672.story      http://www.un.org/News/briefings/docs/2013/130128_Guest.doc.htm  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/18/putin-dashes-g8-hopes-syria-breakthrough