Since its initial formulation in 2001, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, adopted by the UN in 2005, has been a source of constant popular and academic debate. Opinions on R2P range from a noble humanitarian initiative that represents the first significant step to a solidarist vision of the international realm to a tool of the powerful states for legitimizing their self-serving expeditions or a well meaning but ultimately hallow liberal concept.
Over the past five years R2P’s fortunes in becoming a well-established norm of the international society rose and fell sharply, from its implementation in Libyan crisis in 2011 to its ineffectiveness in the face of the suffering in Syria. Here I will consider whether the Syrian case spells the doom of R2P and confirm the worst fears of the doctrine’s skeptics or whether R2P still has a contribution to make. I will argue the latter, and suggest that the moral principles that underlie R2P can and should be invoked to provide care for Syrian refugees.
The core principle of the R2P doctrine is that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians from four major mass crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing. In the cases in which sovereign states purport such crimes against its own citizens or fail to stop such crimes from occurring, R2P bestows a responsibility to the rest of the international community to intervene through any means available, including –as a last resort- military intervention. The creativeness of R2P was its reformulation of sovereignty as a responsibility to protect civilians from mass crimes, rather than a right that bestows states the privilege of non-intervention.
Through a UN Security Council Resolution, R2P was invoked in Libya in 2011. A rebellion against Muammar Khaddafi’s regime had set up an advance of government forces to rebel-held Benghazi, threatening to overrun the city. A NATO intervention successfully thwarted Khaddafi forces, preventing a potential episode of mass violence in Benghazi. NATO forces further pushed government forces to the Libyan capital Tripoli. Aided by NATO’s airstrikes, rebels eventually overtook Khaddafi’s compound and killed the former dictator.
China and Russia, permanent members of the UN Security Council, while approving the intervention to stop the march to Benghazi, were infuriated that the interveners pushed further. Chinese officials were displeased that the NATO operation went beyond halting the Civil War and protecting civilians but pushed towards toppling the Libyan Government and enforce regime change. Furthermore, Libya slowly descended into chaos following the intervention, which stood as a confirmation to skeptics who considered R2P as a political tool of the powerful as opposed to an expression of an international moral principle.
So when the question of invoking R2P arose as the Syrian Civil War escalated in late 2011, the necessary political will could not be mustered in the Security Council. Come 2015, Syrian Civil War led to the rise of the Islamic State (neither Islamic, nor a state), whose brutality seemingly knows no bounds, and left more than 3 million Syrians displaced. The UN estimates that 220000 people have died in the war so far. Atrocities such as ethnic and religious persecution, deliberate attacks against civilians, human trafficking and chemical attacks have been repeatedly committed by multiple sides of this increasingly complicated conflict.
Clearly, in this case, R2P has failed in its goal of making good on the call of “Never Again,” uttered repeatedly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and again after the Rwandan Genocide, and the Guatemalan Civil War. The optimism that arose immediately after the intervention in Libya has been replaced, in a rather short amount of time, with questions as to whether R2P is on the verge of death.
Meanwhile, millions of Syrian refugees have been undertaking long, tiring and deadly journeys to leave war, persecution, chronic poverty, unemployment and overcrowded refugee camps behind. They seek the chance to build better lives, have their children grow up in a place where they can have a shot at a decent, fulfilling life. Pursuing that goal, many give up whatever possessions they are left with in order to pay callous human-smugglers.
The response from the wealthy Western countries, where most of the refugees are headed towards, has so far been mixed. On the one hand, thousands of people gathered in numerous cities, including here in Edmonton, to hold “Refugees are Welcome” rallies. The image of a young Syrian-Kurdish boy’s dead body, washed ashore in Western Turkey after the refugee boat he was in sank en route Greece, shocked the moral conscience of the world. States like Germany and Canada have been striving to be as welcoming as they could. On the other hand, especially following the IS attacks in Paris, where one suspect carried a fake Syrian passport, many in the West have also been vocal about shutting the doors to refugees due to safety concerns. Some, like the Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, resorted to “Clash of Civilizations” argument, stating that they did not want Muslims in their countries, considering them a threat to “Judeo-Christian culture.” Barbed wires and walls are appearing in the eastern frontiers of Europe, from Bulgaria to Macedonia to Hungary.
I am convinced that while an R2P intervention did not materialize in Syria, the doctrine still offers utility, namely in propelling a unified and humane response to the refugee crisis. The doctrine, after all, does not just call for a military intervention to fulfill its promise, but calls international community to protect civilians from mass crimes as best as they could. If one sincerely believes that a moral imperative to save innocent lives underlies the R2P, the same moral responsibility should apply when those same people we wow to protect, with bombs and guns if necessary, come running to us in search of bread and butter, and trying to leave the specter of a massacre behind. There is absolutely no reason why the duty to protect civilians from mass crimes should not be extended to those who seek to escape the impending danger. In fact, here in Canada the concept of responsibility has been at the forefront of the Government’s efforts to resettle 25000 refugees by the end of February 2016, as Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) declared that Canada’s commitment “demonstrates to the world that we have a shared responsibility to help people who are displaced and persecuted” (emphasis added).
Inaction in the face of the plight of the refugees, I would argue, is not different than ignoring the signs of impending genocide in Rwanda or failing to protect the “safe haven” of Srebrenica, i.e. the kinds of international failings that R2P seeks to address. Leaving people at the mercy of human-smugglers, asking Balkan states –themselves relatively fractured and poor- to block and harass refugees, letting people drown in the Mediterranean or Aegean Seas (or in the case of one Greek patrol, allegedly, intentionally sink their boat) is not the kind of moral response that architects and promoters of R2P had hoped to solicit from the international society. Hence, I believe R2P could, and should be invoked to push forward a comprehensive international commitment and action plan –one better thought out than simply bribing Turkey- in order to make sure that anyone who manages to escape from the many calamities of the life in Syria will not have to face anymore mortal dangers.
Invoking R2P would not only be appropriate and moral but would also be beneficial in furthering the doctrine’s cause. An R2P commitment to protecting the refugees of the Syrian War will demonstrate to its skeptics that it is not merely a political card in the deck of the superpowers, but actually constitutes a moral imperative and humanitarian commitment. Thereby we can make sure that in the future a more timely response to a crisis like the one Syria had in 2011 can be put together.
Emrah Keskin is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science. He holds an MA from New York University and a BA from Sabanci University in Istanbul. He previously worked as a journalist in Turkey with Radikal and Haberturk. His current research focuses on the impact of mental health trauma on post-conflict reconciliation. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @k13e