R2P Status Report: The World is Decrying the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria, But What About R2P?

A child at his bombed out family home in Syria. FreedomHouse
By Stephen Kozey

A year ago, President Obama said that if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, it would cross a “red line.” That red line has been crossed, with recent reports confirming the use of sarin nerve agent and estimating between 300 and 1,300 casualties, including women and children. The U.N. Security Council has responded to the situation by adopting Resolution 2118. This resolution strongly condemns the chemical attack and requires Syria to forfeit and destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, as well as its means of production and delivery of chemical weapons.

International law prohibits the use of chemical weapons, but doesn’t permit military intervention in another country on that basis alone. Military intervention in another country is justified only in the case of self defense or when there is a U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing the intervention. The conflict in Syria, however, has remained an internal one and has not yet posed a substantial security threat to neighboring countries. Moreover, Russia and China have consistently vetoed any resolution even hinting at the possibility of intervention. It does not appear that the use of chemical weapons has caused these veto-wielders to change their view, so there is little chance of a legally justifiable intervention as things stand today.

But is the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons the only legal argument that the pro-intervention members of the U.N. Security Council (namely France, the United Kingdom, and the United States) can use to try to sway Russia and China? What about Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as adopted in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document?

Despite clear invocations by some U.N. bodies and representatives, particularly the High Commissioner on Human Rights, none of the three U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding Syria has referenced R2P, and only one (the most recent) of five U.N. General Assembly resolutions has done so. This is somewhat striking compared to the clear and immediate appeal to R2P in Libya in 2011, especially because, as Martha Hall Findlay notes, “there have been far more examples of peaceful, unarmed civilians being killed by government forces in Syria than in Libya, arguably making a stronger case for R2P.”

If the Syrian government has clearly not fulfilled its responsibility to protect its civilian population, then why are pro-intervention countries so hesitant to invoke R2P to support intervention?

One of the more persuasive reasons that commentators such as Lorena Ruano have pointed to is that the R2P doctrine was taken advantage of by NATO forces in Libya. Yes, the U.N. Security Council did authorize “all necessary means” to protect Libyan civilians, but many argue that NATO’s actions exceeded that narrow purpose. Instead of purely protecting civilians, NATO pursued regime change. Indeed, Western leaders were calling for Qaddafi’s downfall even before they began dropping bombs. And, as Zifcak tells us, this is precisely the root of Russia and China’s (and others’) concerns about intervention in Syria.

Thus, although the intervention in Libya was arguably very successful in terms of achieving R2P’s ultimate goal of preventing humanitarian crises, it also showed that R2P as a legal doctrine is highly susceptible to political manipulation. Surely such potential for manipulation is nothing new in international law, but in high-stakes, high-emotions games such as armed intervention, tolerance for malleable legal doctrines is minimal. This malleability is even less acceptable given that R2P conflicts with stalwart principles of international law like sovereign independence and territorial integrity.

It is likely in light of this perceived manipulability that pro-intervention countries are not appealing to R2P to support a potential intervention in Syria. More importantly, Findlay says that given this state of affairs the already tenuous existence of R2P in international law may be further threatened by non-use. If the U.N. continues to brush R2P aside, it is possible that David Rieff’s prediction in 2011 – that the first major test of the R2P doctrine as justification for intervention in Libya was also its last – may become reality.