Why Figures Matter

Syrian refugees rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the Italian navy, UNHCR

This week, a number of newspapers once again published stories that “up to 600,000 people are estimated to be waiting in Libya” to cross the Mediterranean to enter Europe. There is no question that the number of asylum seekers – many from Syria – who are crossing into Europe by boat through a variety of routes has increased dramatically. Italy, for example, estimates they have already received 50,000 asylum seekers since the start of the year. And as the numbers have increased, so too have deaths at sea. The Migrant Files, an on-line database, has found that more than 23,000 migrants have died en route to Europe since 2000.

But we should always be concerned about large figures of would-be migrants being quoted. With the end of the Cold War, the British Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, claimed that 7 million Soviet citizens would want to work in the west, and that “many might seek to use the asylum route and, indeed, it would be naïve to think otherwise.” That flow, needless to say, never happened.

There are similar questions around this figure of 600,000. The first issue is who made the claim. It was first made by Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano in April, though widely reported since as being from unnamed government officials, such as “European authorities” in the Guardian’s story. Further, Alfano’s claim was significantly more hedged. He stated: “According to our information between 300,000 and 600,000 people are on the other side of the Mediterranean on the North African coastline, waiting to cross sooner or later.” But, beyond his claim, there is little evidence to support it. Apart from the fact this suggests huge numbers of asylum seekers are patiently waiting in a country that is on the brink of a renewed civil war, there is simply no evidence this population exists. UNHCR’s current estimates have 30,000 refugees and 60,000 IDPs in Libya – a sixth of this figure.

Further, it is very much in Italy’s interest to play up these claims. The government has been seeking to get an expanded EU response by arguing that migration across the Mediterranean is a European issue, not just an Italian one. Alfano has noted that “the Mediterranean is not an Italian border but a European border” while Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini has stated “we must collaborate with our European partners to manage the flow of people crossing the Mediterranean.”

This figure is also now being used as a pretext to reconsider processing centres outside of Europe to deal with asylum seekers. Flavio De Gaicomo from the International of Organization, for example, has suggested “maybe we could establish migrant centres in their own countries to give them the possibility to find legal ways of entering Europe. This kind of solution must be taken into account. They should be able to come to Europe without dying at sea.” The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)’s European director, Vincent Cochetel, has stated that UNHCR “We would not be totally against external processing if certain safeguards were in place: the right to appeal, fair process, the right to remain while appeals take place.”

But beyond the healthy scepticism this figure should be examined with, there is the question about why migration has been growing so significantly across the Mediterranean. The answer here is that there are few other routes for them. As Human Right Watch has noted, Greece, which had been the main country of entry into the EU, has used fences to effectively close its land border with Turkey. Both Greece as well as Bulgaria have engaged in summary returns of asylum seekers to Europe. And there are suggestions that Italian authorities have been encouraging on-migration by deliberately not processing individual migrants, thereby limiting the chances other European countries will return them to Italy. Knowing that there is less chance they will be returned may be encouraging asylum seekers to take to the sea to travel to Italy.

Thus, there is little evidence behind this figure, even though it is being widely reported and used as a means to drive a very particular policy agenda. There is no question that right now, Italy is facing a large number of asylum seekers. But the response should be to consider multilateral options within European Union to share this population and ensure that the rights of refugees under international and European law are respected.

Dr. Phil Orchard is a Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies and International Relations at the University of Queensland and Senior Researcher and Program Director, Doctrine, Concepts, and Inter-Agency Cooperation at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He tweets @p_orchard.

Syria: Groups Call for ICC Referral

Statement by Civil Society Organizations on Need for Justice. Original post here.

(New York, May 15, 2014) Over one hundred civil society groups from around the world issued the following statement today to urge the United Nations Security Council to approve a resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

We, the undersigned civil society groups, urge United Nations Security Council members to approve a draft resolution supported by a broad coalition of countries that would refer the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

More than three years into a conflict that has claimed well over 100,000 lives, according to the United Nations, atrocity crimes are being committed with complete impunity by all sides in the conflict, with no end in sight.

Neither Syrian authorities nor the leaders of non-state armed groups have taken any meaningful steps to ensure accountability for past and ongoing grave human rights crimes. The failure to hold those responsible for these violations to account has only fueled further atrocities by all sides. Against this background, we believe the ICC is the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting the people who bear the greatest responsibility for serious crimes and of offering a measure of justice for victims in Syria.

The latest report from the UN’s Syria Commission of Inquiry, published on March 5, 2014, also found that all sides to the Syria conflict continued to commit serious crimes under international law and held that the Security Council was failing to take action to end the state of impunity. The commission, which has published seven in-depth reports since its establishment in August 2011, recommended that the Security Council give the ICC a mandate to investigate abuses in Syria

The need for accountability in Syria through the ICC has likewise been supported by more than 60 UN member countries, representing all regions of world, including 10 of the current members of the Security Council. We urge all Security Council members to heed this call for justice. Other countries should publicly support the draft resolution and warn Russia and China against using their veto power to obstruct accountability for violations by all sides.

As a permanent international court with a mandate to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity when national authorities are unable or unwilling to do so, the ICC was created to address exactly the type of situation that exists in Syria today. Though the court’s work can be only one piece of the larger accountability effort needed in Syria, it is a crucial first step.

We therefore strongly urge Security Council members to urgently act to fill the accountability gap in Syria. The people of Syria cannot afford further disappointment or delay.

Co-signing organizations in alphabetical order

  1. Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture, France
  2. Advocates for Public International Law, Uganda
  3. Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Egypt
  4. Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Australia
  5. Act for Peace, Australia
  6. Arab Coalition for Sudan, Sudan
  7. Arab Program for Human Rights Activists,Egypt
  8. Arab-European Center Of Human Rights And International Law, Norway
  9. Arab Foundation for Development and Citizenship, United Kingdom
  10. Andalus Institute for Tolerance and anti-Violence Studies, Egypt
  11. Benin Coalition for the International Criminal Court, Benin
  12. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Egypt
  13. Campaña Colombiana Contra Minas, Colombia
  14. Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding, Liberia
  15. Child Soldiers International, United Kingdom
  16. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Belgium
  17. Club des Amis du Droit du Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo
  18. Coalition Ivoirienne pour la Cour Penale Internationale, Cote d’Ivoire
  19. Colombian Commission of Jurists, Colombia
  20. Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, South Sudan
  21. Conflict Monitoring Center, Pakistan
  22. Congress of National Minorities of Ukraine, Ukraine
  23. Comité Catholique Contre la Faim et Pour le Développement – Terre Solidaire, France
  24. Comision Mexicana de Defensa y Promocion de los Derechos Humanos, Mexico
  25. Comision de Derechos Humanos, Peru
  26. CSO Network, Western Kenya
  27. Dawlaty Foundation, Lebanon
  28. Democracia Global, Argentina
  29. East Africa Law Society, Tanzania
  30. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Egypt
  31. Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, Somalia
  32. Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network
  33. FN-forbundet / Danish United Nations Association, Denmark
  34. Franciscans International
  35. Fundación de Antropología Forense, Guatemala
  36. Friends For a NonViolent World, United States
  37. Georgian Young Lawyers Association, Georgia
  38. Genocide Alert, Germany
  39. GlobalSolutions.org, United States
  40. Global Justice Center, United States
  41. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, United States
  42. Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Denmark
  43. Horiyat for Development and Human Rights, Libya
  44. Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation, The Netherlands
  45. Humanitarian Law Center Kosovo, Kosovo
  46. Human Rights First, United States
  47. Human Rights Watch
  48. International Justice Project, United States
  49. International Commission of Jurists, Kenya
  50. International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law, Nigeria
  51. International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, United States
  52. International Federation of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture, France
  53. International Center for Policy and Conflict, Kenya
  54. Insan, Lebanon
  55. Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, United States
  56. Justice Without Frontiers, Lebanon
  57. Kenya Human Rights Commission, Kenya
  58. La Coalition Burundaise pour la Cour Penale Internationale, Burundi
  59. Lira NGO Forum, Uganda
  60. Ligue pour la Paix, les Droits de l’Homme et la Justice, Democratic Republic of Congo
  61. Media Foundation for West Africa, Ghana
  62. Minority Rights Group International, United Kingdom
  63. National Youth Action, Inc., Liberia
  64. No Peace Without Justice, Italy
  65. Norwegian People’s Aid, Norway
  66. Optimum Travail du Burkina, Burkina Faso
  67. Open Society Justice Initiative
  68. Pakistan Body Count, Pakistan
  69. PAX, The Netherlands
  70. Pax Christi International
  71. Parliamentarians for Global Action
  72. El Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense, Peru
  73. Physicians for Human Rights, United States
  74. Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Pakistan
  75. REDRESS, United Kingdom
  76. Reporters without Borders, France
  77. Rencontre africaine pour la défense des droits de l’homme (Raddho-Guinée), Guinea
  78. Reseau Equitas, Cote D’Ivoire
  79. Samir Kassir Foundation, Lebanon
  80. Southern Africa Litigation Centre, South Africa
  81. South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law, South Africa
  82. Syrian Network for Human Rights, United Kingdom
  83. Syria Justice & Accountability Center, The Netherlands
  84. Syrian Nonviolence Movement, France
  85. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, United Kingdom
  86. Synergie des ONGs Congolaises pour la lutte contre les Violences Sexuelles, Democratic Republic of Congo
  87. Synergie des ONGs Congolaises pour les Victimes, Democratic Republic of Congo
  88. The International Federation for Human Rights, France
  89. The Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Sierra Leone
  90. The Association of Political Scientists, Greece
  91. The Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, Canada
  92. The Igarape Institute, Brazil
  93. The Arab World Center for Democratic Development, Jordan
  94. The United Nations Association of Sweden, Sweden
  95. United to End Genocide, United States
  96. Vision GRAM-International, Canada
  97. Violations Documentation Center, Syria
  98. Wake Up Genève for Syria, Switzerland
  99. West Africa Civil Society Institute, Ghana
  100. West African Bar Association, Nigeria
  101. World Federalist Movement, Canada
  102. World Federation of United Nations Associations
  103. Womens’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Switzerland
  104. Zarga Organization for Rural Development, Sudan

The Trouble with Air Strikes

Phil Orchard

People inspect a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the northern town of Atareb, in Aleppo province April 24, 2014. REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof http://www.trust.org/item/20140424151027-m8i5e

In a recent piece, Anne-Marie Slaughter (the former Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department and Professor at Princeton University, now the President and CEO of the New America Foundation) argued heavily in favour of American-led air strikes in Syria. Her argument has two points. The first is that while the Obama administration cannot act in the Ukraine, they can decisively act in Syria to “change Putin’s calculations.” Her second point was that the widespread failure of the Syrian government to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2139 provides an opening for action, as it requires “all parties [to] immediately cease attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas…. such as the use of barrel bombs.”

There is no question that the increasing number of air strikes and makeshift barrel bombs by the Syrian regime (including one that may have killed 30 people yesterday) are a clear violation of the Resolution and of international law. However, Slaughter’s argument suffers from three main problems.

The first is that while she suggests Resolution 2139 could be enforced through the use of force “to eliminate Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft,” there is no such language included within the Resolution. Instead, she is effectively advocating a return to the 1990s, where humanitarian interventions in both Northern Iraq and Kosovo were launched by the United States and its allies with loose interpretations of prior Security Council Resolutions. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was deliberately designed to close off this approach by requiring either Security Council, General Assembly, or regional organization approval (in the ICISS version), or Security Council approval alone (in the World Summit Outcome Declaration). Syria has certainly been a hard case for the R2P, but the doctrine continues to be referenced frequently by the Council. For the United States to back away from it now by going around the Security Council, as Slaughter suggests, would be to fatally undermine the fragile international consensus that supports the R2P.

The second problem is what form of force does Slaughter envision? Do one or more strikes against Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft envision the creation of a no-fly-zone, or systematic attacks against Syrian air bases? When President Obama was considering strikes last August following Syria’s reported use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, it was anticipated that the strikes, mainly using missiles fired from four destroyers, would last three days. A no-fly-zone would similarly expose pilots to Syria’s air defense, and, as Hayes Brown argued, the threat would increase the longer the no-fly-zone was maintained.

The third, related, problem is what about the protection of the civilian population? Elsewhere, Slaughter has powerfully advocated for defensive safe areas to protect Syrian civilians. But, while destroying Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft would remove one threat, the Syrian military would still pose a significant threat to both the divided opposition and to the civilian population. And it is unclear how these acts help to actually address, and ideally end, the Syrian conflict. The hope, here, is that the threat of limited strikes may cause the Assad regime and Russia to negotiate, as they did following the US threat last year. But the Ukraine situation has certainly changed Russia’s geopolitical calculations.

If not air strikes, what can we do? It is clear that the humanitarian situation is getting worse, as both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and five UN agencies heads have made clear over the past day. But Resolution 2139 does include a clear reporting mechanism, and there will be heavy pressure on the Security Council to take further actions when it meets next week. And while the focus may be on humanitarian assistance inside Syria, the humanitarian effort as a whole remains significantly underfunded, having received only 18 percent of the $2.3billion requested. Providing additional support to Syria’s neighbours, who have taken in over 2.7 million refugees, is vital and can ensure continued access to asylum for those fleeing the conflict. Unfortunately, there are no good options in the Syrian conflict, but if the West wants to shift to using force, it needs to be far more clearly focused both on ensuring civilian protection and on a political solution.

Dr. Phil Orchard is a Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies and International Relations at the University of Queensland and Senior Researcher and Program Director, Doctrine, Concepts, and Inter-Agency Cooperation at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He tweets @p_orchard. 

A Step Forward by the Security Council on Syria

Phil Orchard

On Saturday, the UN Security Council passed a unanimous resolution which demands access for humanitarian aid organizations in Syria. This is an important step forward, and follows a Presidential Statement in October which had made similar requests. But why is access for humanitarian organizations such an important issue in this crisis?

Part of the issue is the sheer number of civilians who have been affected by the Syrian civil war. 2.3 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. A further 3 million civilians within Syria are in need of assistance. This includes almost a quarter of a million civilians who are under siege by government and opposition forces. In this respect, the welcome agreement between the Syrian government and rebel forces which allowed for the evacuation of over a thousand civilians from the city of Homs is just a drop in the bucket. Combined, these figures represent half the population of the country. And this has led to a massive assistance operation on the part of the international community, with the UN requesting $2.3 million for assistance operations within the country, and a further $4.2 billion for operations in the region. To give an idea of the scope of these requests, the total worldwide contributions to humanitarian assistance in 2012 was only US$17.9 billion.

But the Syrian government has blocked significant assistance efforts within Syria. Most aid organizations are guided by four key principles derived from the Geneva Conventions: humanity, a general commitment to prevent and alleviate suffering; impartiality, that assistance should be based solely on need; neutrality, that organizations providing such assistance have a duty to not take part in hostilities; and independence, that these organizations should be free from political, religious, or other extraneous influences. In a critical 1991 Resolution, the UN General Assembly accepted the importance of these principles, but added a significant limitation: that assistance should: “be provided with the consent of the affected country… the affected State has the primary role in the initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance within its territory…”

This means that the Syrian government can exercise a great deal of control over aid operations. Prior to the October Presidential Statement, they were only allowing so-called ‘cross-line’ assistance to rebel held areas – assistance that first needed to be transported to government-held Damascus, then sent outwards – rather than cross-border assistance. Following the statement, they did increase the number of cross-line convoys approved and allowed cross-border assistance from Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, but continued to block any assistance from Turkey.  In December, this led the aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to argue “if the Syrian government remains the main channel for the overwhelming majority of international humanitarian aid, millions of people will continue to be deprived of adequate assistance.” Internally displaced persons camps in Syria along the Turkish border, for example, are in dire conditions “with no running water, electricity or sewage systems, sanitary and nutritional conditions are extremely poor.”

The government’s position leaves aid organizations with a set of unpalatable choices. UN agencies are not allowed to operate without the Syrian government’s consent. Other organizations, like MSF, admit they are operating illegally to provide aid to rebel-held areas: “we feel they by crossing the border even illegally we are legitimate since the needs are huge and almost no one is present to assist the population.”

The resolution, which was pushed by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, adopts relatively strong language, including by demanding “that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for U.N. humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners including across conflict lines and across borders.” Unfortunately, even stronger language including the possibility of sanctions was removed during the negotiations process.

But the resolution does request that the Secretary-General report back to the Council on the implementation of the resolution within 30 days, and “expresses its intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance,” which leaves the door open for sanctions or other actions in a subsequent resolution. As Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, noted in a statement following the passage of the resolution, “it has a clear demand for specific and concrete actions and it is a commitment to act in the event of non-compliance.” But already there are concerns that even if the government is found to not be complying with the resolution, the Russian government may veto any further steps. And, even if assistance can be improved, it will mean only that the internally displaced and civilians in Syria will have more access to help; it will do nothing to provide these people with a long term solution. For that, a political solution needs to be negotiated.

A modified version of this first appeared on The Conversation at: https://theconversation.com/syrian-aid-resolution-a-step-forward-by-the-un-23567

Phil Orchard is a Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland, and a Research Associate with the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He is the author of A Right to Flee: Refugees, States, and the Construction of International Cooperation and the co-editor of Implementation in World Politics: How Norms Change Practice. His work has been published in Global Governance, International Affairs, and the Review of International Studies, among other journals. He tweets at: @p_orchard.

Libyan Case a Red Herring in Syria Dilemma

This post was originally posted on IPI Global Observatory. Thank you for permission to reblog.

The international community’s failure to respond in a timely and decisive fashion to the crisis in Syria has been widely described as a failure of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). It is not hard to see why: the UN Security Council has fallen well short of adopting “timely and decisive” measures as approximately 120,000 people have been killed and close to nine million displaced. Syria thus stands as a test for RtoP that most commentators believe it has failed.

One of the principal explanations for this apparent failure is the political fallout from the NATO-led intervention in Libya. 

Key Conclusions 

  • The Security Council’s failure to adopt a timely and decisive response to the situation in Syria is often attributed to the political backlash from NATO’s controversial intervention in Libya.
  • Voting patterns and statements offered in the Council’s Syria debates as well as the Council’s wider practice since 2011 provide little evidence of a direct link between the two cases.
  • The Council’s failure on Syria more likely stems from complexities and geopolitics associated with the Syrian case itself.


According to Gareth Evans, one of RtoP’s progenitors, “Consensus [about RtoP] has simply evaporated in a welter of recrimination about how the NATO-led implementation of the Council’s Libya mandate…was actually carried out. We have to frankly recognize that there has been some infection of the whole RtoP concept by the perception, accurate or otherwise, that the civilian protection mandate granted by the Council was manifestly exceeded by that military operation.”

Has the “infection” of RtoP stymied the chances of consensus on Syria? Would the Security Council’s response to Syria have been different without Libya and RtoP? Despite the ubiquity of the association between Libya and Syria in public commentary, evidence of a clear link between the two cases is surprisingly thin. 

First, Russian and Chinese explanations of their own (shifting) positions on Syria have not been consistent in emphasizing the legacy of Libya. In fact, China has yet to raise Libya in its formal comments on Syria addressed to the Security Council. The place of Libya in Russian thinking on Syria has been inconsistent at best. In explaining its first veto on a draft Syria resolution, in October 2011, Russia railed against NATO’s actions in Libya but added a series of other, pragmatic arguments to support its case. Five months later, Russia vetoed a second resolution on Syria but made no reference to Libya in explaining its position. Then, as the previously endorsed Annan-plan unraveled later in 2012, Russia cast a third veto and ramped up the rhetoric on Libya to new heights. 

Second, several governments critical of the NATO-led action in Libya at times supported draft resolutions on Syria which were vetoed by Russia and China. This includes Brazil, India, and Pakistan. What is more, neither these governments nor South Africa voted against any of the draft resolutions. Nor did other non-permanent Council members from the Global South such as Nigeria, Togo, Morocco, Gabon, or Lebanon. Through all the Council’s deliberations on Syria, only South Africa joined Russia in mentioning concerns arising from Libya. 

Had Libya been among the principal factors behind voting patterns on Syria, one would have expected to see more states identify the connection between the two cases and a higher degree of uniformity in voting across those member states that were critical of NATO’s actions in Libya. After all why would the Libya precedent matter more to Russia than India? 

Third, the idea that consensus on RtoP has been damaged by the political fallout from Libya does not sit comfortably with the Council’s overall record since it authorized the use of force to protect civilians there in Resolution 1973 of March 2011. The Security Council has employed RtoP more often in the two years since the Libya intervention ended than in the more than five years between the 2005 World Summit, when UN member states endorsed RtoP, and the passing of Resolution 1973. 


In the 65 months between the World Summit and the Security Council’s first resolution on Libya in February 2011, the Council referred to RtoP just four times and only twice in relation to country situations. Since Resolution 1973, the Council has notched up 10 resolutions mentioning RtoP in a period of 33 months, including resolutions on Côte d’IvoireSouth Sudan, and Yemen in 2011; on Mali in 2012; and on the Central African Republic in 2013. The Council also referred to RtoP in its 2011 presidential statement onpreventive diplomacy and its 2013 statements on peace and security in Africa and on Syria

There is therefore little evidence to support the view that Libya has made the Council less willing to incorporate RtoP into its messaging and practice or that it has made it more difficult than it would otherwise have been to find a consensus on Syria. Not only has the Council referred to RtoP in substantive resolutions much more frequently since Resolution 1973 than before it, the inclusion of RtoP language in Council resolutions has become much less controversial than it once was.

All of this suggests that the Council’s paralysis on Syria owes more to the politics surrounding this specific case than to more generalized concerns about RtoP arising out of Libya. Rather than being a product of widespread international concerns stemming from the implementation of Resolution 1973 on Libya, the Security Council’s inability thus far to take timely and decisive action to protect Syrians from mass atrocities is more likely caused by two generic constraints on the Council that were identified by Edward Luck in 2006: (1) there are some problems that do not have feasible near-term solutions, and (2) the Council is “not above the vagaries of international politics. Indeed it is all about politics: local, national, regional and global.” It is the complex politics within and surrounding Syria that seems to hold the key, not the political fallout from Libya.

Alex J. Bellamy is Professor of International Security at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia; Honorary Professor of International Relations at The University of Queensland, Australia; and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. He is a non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute. 

R2P Ideas in Brief: Syria


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.


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.

Collective Historical Memory and its effects on the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon

Photo courtesy of: http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/04/09/UNHCR-opens-new-registration-center-for-Syrian-refugees-in-Tyre-southern-Lebanon.html

If the international community is able to agree on one thing regarding the Syrian crisis right now, it is that it is a mess.  No side is winning in what has become an outright civil war, and those who seem to have the least to gain are the Syrian people themselves once the fighting stops.  This blog examines the Syrian refugee crisis through the eyes of its closest neighbour, Lebanon.  What is revealed is that at the local level, is that collective historical memory of the events of the civil war is what informs Lebanese beliefs about how to manage the influx of Syrian refugees.  

The total number of persons of concern to the UNHCR in the Syrian crisis has reached 1,615,137 of which 1,416,277  are registered refugees. On average 8,000 Syrians are crossing into Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey daily.  In Lebanon, the number of Syrian persons of concern has reached 513,560 of which 440,427 are registered refugees.

Whilst local integration for Syrians in Lebanon is considered easier owing to the similarity in language and culture between the two states, the situation there is highly problematic for two reasons: the lack of camps, and local prejudice towards Syrians in general whom the Lebanese are easily able to identify from subtle differences in their physical appearance. 

The first issue, that of the camps, is deeply problematic but can be understood if analysed at the local political level.  From the point of view of the international humanitarian community, the lack of camp facilities makes it far harder for the UNHCR to ensure refugee protection and general well being.  Currently makeshift tents and housing speckle the Beq’aa valley, where in many cases Syrian refugees are having to pay extortionate rents from land owners to merely erect a tent on a tiny square of land.  Basic facilities such as toilets and kitchens are unavailable and as the area backs onto areas of intense fighting it is insecure as missiles and other ordinance regularly land on the Lebanese side of the border.

The Lebanese government refuses to allow the construction of refugee camps for Syrians.  A quick reflection on the not-so-distant past reveals the rationale for their position. Lebanon has housed numerous Palestinian refugee camps since 1948 and currently there are between 400,000 to 600,000 Palestinians residing in the country.  In 1970, when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was expelled from Jordan, they moved to Lebanon and swiftly took over many areas in the south of Lebanon, but also the camps.  As a result, the camps themselves became places of resistance to certain factions in the Lebanese Government during the civil war, and many battles were waged within the camps and launched from them.  Indeed, the presence of Palestinians was the trigger for the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions of Lebanon during which hundreds of Lebanese were killed and wounded.  Post-civil war the problem of radicalisation within the camps remains a significant issue.  The southern camp of Ayn Al-Hilweh in Sidon, known to be the home of the radical Sunni Islamic group – Fatah Al-Islam, is so insecure that even the Lebanese Army do not dare to enter it.  In the North, close to Tripoli is the camp of Nahr Al-Bared where in 2007 several Lebanese Internal security officers were murdered by Fatah al-Islam militants triggering an all out war in the camp which led to its destruction by the Lebanese Army, but the camp remains a site of significant tension.

This history means the Lebanese state is unwilling to create any new camps for Syrians, fearing, not unjustifiably, that they will become spaces for insurgent activity which threatens the security of Lebanon itself.  As the official policy towards Syria remains one of disassociation (although this view is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain), they do not want the camps to become places where attacks against Syria, or Lebanese political groups can be planned and executed.  The weakness of the Lebanese state currently means it is in no position to ensure that any camps constructed would not fall prey to Syrian opposition factions.  Especially as the majority of Syrians fleeing the violence are Sunni Muslims who dominate the armed factions on the ground in Syria.

Furthermore, just as the Palestinian camps have become permanent fixtures on the Lebanese landscape, the government here fears the same will happen all over again.  If they build a camp, will the residents ever leave?  One of the main reasons that Palestinians cannot be naturalised in Lebanon is because they are considered to be predominantly Sunni.  Lebanon has a population of around 4.5 million, if the half a million or so Palestinians currently residing in Lebanon were to become part of the Lebanese population, they would alter the delicate sectarian balance that exists today. This is not a prospect the other sects within Lebanon savour.  The same is true for the Syrian refugees: the Lebanese are wary of an influx of Sunnis who might decide to stay.  As Syrians are permitted to remain indefinitely in Lebanon without requiring a visa, there is nothing to prevent them from choosing to remain and building a life for themselves here and although this is different to formally recognising them as part of the Lebanese population (with the right to vote), they might present a threat in other ways.  Firstly by encouraging greater interference in Lebanese affairs on behalf of the Syrian population, should it continue to grow; and secondly intermarriage with Lebanese would enable Syrian women to take Lebanese nationality.  Irrational though these fears may sound, as a small state the Lebanese are highly sensitive to demographic changes for the reasons noted above.

For those Syrians fortunate enough to make it past the Beq’aa and into Beirut, the situation they face is one of hardship. Rents are incredibly high compared with Syria, and there is insufficient space. But it is prejudice against Syrians that probably causes the most difficulty for Syrian refugees on a day-to-day basis.  Syrian forces occupied Lebanon for thirty years (from 1975 – until 2005).  As a result of the human rights abuses that occurred under their watch, many Lebanese view Syrians with resentment.  This has not always been the case, but the situation has not been helped by the sudden influx of Syrians who are prepared to accept low wages for menial work.  The declining Lebanese economy makes work hard to find for young men from the lower socio-economic strata of the population and they are now having to compete even harder for the most basic of work, compounding the resentment within those sectors of the Lebanese population.  The same applies to cheap accommodation; Syrians are regarded as taking up rental properties in low income areas at the expense of Lebanese.

On the whole Lebanese are sympathetic to the plight of the Syrian people but prejudice is reflected in the daily actions of every day Lebanese, from rude comments to episodes of actual physical violence.  Taxis refuse to stop for them, and in one case witnessed by the author, two Lebanese on a scooter actually deliberately hit a man as he was trying to cross, when they recognised he was Syrian. Resentment is compounded by reports of Syrian refugee sympathy for movements like Jabat Al-Nusra, a Salafist group currently fighting Assad’s regime in Syria.  Nowhere is the tension between these groups higher than in Tripoli, where the population is deeply polarised between those who support Assad and those who oppose him; and the Shi’a dominated Southern Suburbs (Dahiyeh) where in recent days the Lebanese Military had to intervene to break up a fight between Syrians and the local Lebanese population.

Progress on addressing the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is doubtless not helped by the lack of cohesion amongst the political parties in Lebanon, who to this day, have been unable to agree on an electoral law that would have enabled them to hold the planned General Election on 16 June.  To date, a one and a half year extension has in principle been agreed to, but it is currently being challenged by the President Michel Suleiman and one of the Christian parties led by Michel Aoun.  Meanwhile the pressure on this small state to house the flows of refugees from Syria continues with no solution in sight.

Vanessa Newby, PhD Student, Griffith Asia Institute.  Currently on a visiting fellowship at American University of Beirut.