R2P Ideas in Brief: Syria

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This is a short extract of a longer piece by Tim Dunne and Alex Bellamy for R2P Ideas in Brief, Asia Pacific Centre for Responsibility to Protect, Vol 3, No 5 (2013).

This briefing is designed to shed light on the complex interplay between the situation on the ground in Syria and the normative context that has informed – and continues to inform – the responses of key institutions and actors. There is much that can be learned from the handling of the crisis triggered by the chemical weapons (CW) attacks on Ghouta on 21 August.

Between 21 August and the potentially game-changing remarks by US Secretary of State Kerry on 10 September suggesting that President Assad could avoid military strikes if he ‘turned over’ all his chemical weapons capability, R2P was invoked to justify the use of force. At the same time, many R2P informed voices opposed this course of action. 

The fact of the diversity of views on what to do about Syria is not in itself a surprise.  But for the epistemic community associated with R2P, there is a need for clarity as to the ways in which the range of possible responses to the CW attack are consistent with, or in breach of, the responsibility to protect. Whether ‘we’ like it or not, ‘any principle that helps to legitimise a course of action will therefore be among the enabling conditions of its occurrence’.[i]

One of the key fault-lines in the post-21 August debate was the necessity of UN Security Council (UNSC) authorisation, particularly given that Russia had an openly stated preference for keeping the Assad regime in power. This of course is an old fault-line for the human protection regime going back to Kosovo – there was much talk in Washington about the ‘Kosovo precedent’. Yet the orthodox R2P position is that the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document (WSOD) explicitly places the use of force for human protection within the framework of the UN Charter, and therefore limits authorisation solely to the UNSC.

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The ‘authorisation’ question is not the only fault-line in recent R2P debates about Syria. There is also a dispute about what actions are permitted in response to a CW attack that both breaches an international convention outlawing its use and is shockingly indiscriminate in its effects. As Gareth Evans put it, ‘proven use of chemical weapons would be profoundly in breach of Syria’s “responsibility to protect”. As the post-21st August phase unfolded, the Obama Administration increasingly chose to frame their proposed military action in relation to the ban on CW, rather than the persistent crimes against humanity that had been perpetrated by conventional weapons for many years. In this respect, to the extent that R2P was informing the President’s framing of the issue, it was now about ‘war crimes’ rather than crimes against humanity.

Prior to discussing R2P in the post-21 August phase, the briefing will re-evaluate the extent to which the framework outlined in 2005 had significant material impact upon the meaning actors gave to the ‘facts on the ground’. We show that however much the main protagonists disagreed about what was to be done in relation to Syria, the fact of mass atrocities having been committed had not been challenged during the crisis – and neither was the claim that the Syrian regime had failed to live up to its responsibility to protect.

See rest of the report here.

[i] Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics, Volume 1: Regarding Method, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.156.

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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