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Responsibility to Protect: Adapt or Abandon

By Sarah Holloway – Editor-in-Chief

Since its inception in 2005, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine has accomplished little besides promoting idealism and selectivity. Born out of the legacies of the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica massacre, R2P was a direct response to humanitarian crises and the lack of protocol for international response. Initially, the three pillars that defined this principle and effectively reframed state sovereignty appeared revolutionary and seemed to promise change for the international community; however, time has proven otherwise. According to R2P, the state carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. If the state is unwilling or unable to uphold this, the international community has a responsibility to intervene through appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes—with authorized collective use of force as a last resort.

These tenets were left ambiguous by design; the intent of the international community was to discuss activation of R2P on a case-by-case basis. While a logical solution, this vagueness has created inevitable inconsistency and partiality in addition to the potential for a misuse of collective action. This necessitates the severe adaptation or abandonment of R2P.

R2P was first invoked in 2011 in Libya with Muammar al-Qaddafi’s threats to Benghazi during the Arab Spring, however, this was not the first instance in which the doctrine was proposed as a response to an international crisis.  When Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in 2008, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner argued that the “responsibility to protect” obligated the international community to intervene—a sentiment that was echoed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Despite the clear inability of the Burmese government to protect its citizens in light of natural disaster, the Security Council ultimately refused to authorize collective action.

A similar situation occurred with Gaza in 2014; while there is no doubt civilians were being targeted in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, there was little discussion of implementing the protocol. While this was partially due to the technical ambiguities of Gaza’s status as an occupied or independent entity, the main obstacle preventing action was the close alliance between the United States and Israel, leading to a lack of consensus from the Security Council to get involved.

Finally, efforts to implement R2P in Syria have floundered due to the deadlock between Russia and the West within the Security Council. The war, pitting rebels mostly from Syria’s Sunni majority against a minority rule rooted in Assad’s Alawite community, has killed more than 300,000 people. Half the population has been displaced and much of urban Syria has become a wasteland. The Syrian situation is exactly what R2P was meant to address yet the political nature of the implementation process has largely resulted in bias and inaction on all fronts.

The international community’s disregard for R2P in Syria does harm to the doctrine, as does Libya’s R2P legacy of the failure to rebuild and the allegations that intervention acted as a veneer for regime change. Ultimately, R2P is more representative of lofty ideals than actual policy; in order to effect real change in international humanitarian law, intervention policies must be more direct with built-in mechanisms to circumvent Security Council deadlock. If the definition of state sovereignty is on the table, there should be specific criteria for the intervening actors to avoid politicizing a question of action against human rights, otherwise, like R2P, policies become distorted and ineffective. In conclusion, R2P has failed. The ethical response of the international community should be to reopen discussions on intervention policy and to replace or rework the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to ensure that future crises have equal opportunity for effective response.

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