Tim Dunne is Director of Research Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland.
We are in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria. There already seems to be a consensus in the global media that the lack of coercive measures taken against President al-Assad's regime shows that the principle of 'responsibility to protect' (R2P) is in trouble.
According to this line of argument, the concerted and authorised action to protect Libyans (Resolution 1973) now looks like an exceptional moment of internationalist sentiment and action that is never likely to be repeated. Suddenly, the diplomatic clock appears to have been turned back to the dark days of diplomatic indifference witnessed during the genocide in Rwanda.
Stewart Patrick, Director of the Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote a blog post called 'Responsibility to Protect in Crisis'. Patrick argues that R2P is 'in major crisis' primarily because the mission in Libya 'did not pave the way for some of the changes that its advocates hoped for'. Previously, David Rieff had read the last rites in a NY Times article called R2P: RIP.
It is possible to quibble with the view that Libya was an unalloyed example of an R2P operation, for two reasons. First, the key Security Council resolution talked about Libya's failure to live up to its responsibility to protect, rather than invoking the more disputed dimension of the international community's responsibility to take timely and decisive action.
Second, and more significantly, the R2P advocates Patrick has in mind were more equivocal about Libya. Gareth Evans, for example, voiced concerns about the shifting rationale for NATO's action. Evans points out that the slippage in the justification for the war put forward by the UK, France, and the US — from the original protection of civilians mandate to 'regime-change lite' — has been costly in terms of stymieing coercive action against President al-Assad's regime.
Whatever the diplomatic fissures revealed by last weekend's failure to agree a Security Council resolution, it is important to remember that there has never been a global consensus about how to operationalise R2P when the state in question is failing to live up to its responsibilities and will not permit external assistance.
In this sense, the decision that has taken place over the last decade to locate authority for R2P enforcement action solely in the UN Security Council means there will always be cases where an obstinate great power (or two) can stop the will of the others. It stands to reason that the coercive aspect of R2P can either be enabled by the Security Council as it was in Libya, or prevented, as it has been so far in Syria.
Talk of a crisis of R2P masks two critically important issues. Policy advisers in Western Europe and the US will want to revisit the claim made by supporters of the Kosovo intervention who maintained that a likely Russian and Chinese veto would have been unreasonable. This of course was a prelude to action taking place against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia outside of the remit of the Council.
Those inclined to replace the UN order with a 'League of Democracies' will be bolstered by the strong rhetoric currently being heard about China and Russia being morally culpable for the rising death toll among the political opposition in Homs and elsewhere. How can a UN Charter which begins with the words 'We, the peoples' be repeatedly set to one side because one or more authoritarian power believes it is due more respect?
Reviving the question of the Security Council's monopoly over R2P authorisation is a discussion that will be emboldened after Syria. The other is the question of the gap that can open up between Security Council permission and control over military operations. This is an issue that underpinned a recent statement by the Brazilian Government regarding the need for greater responsibility to be exercised 'while protecting'.
The Brazilian proposal includes two important revisions to the R2P framework: ensuring a decision to use force is criteria-led, and building in a review mechanism such that the members of the UN are informed about the mandate's implementation. These and other debates will continue to inform the evolution of R2P.
We should remember that the real crisis is the brutality that some governments continue to inflict on their people: R2P or some variant of it is likely to continue to inform responses to humanitarian infernos even though concerted and lawful action to extinguish them will remain rare and prone to inconsistent implementation.
Photo by Flickr user bindermichi.