Alex Bellamy is Professor of International Security at Griffith University and Tim Dunne is Director of Research at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

The social revolutions associated with the Arab Spring have generated significant policy challenges for governments and for the UN. In March 2011, NATO led an enforcement of the UN mandated no fly zone over Libya to protect civilians from Qadhafi's military forces.

This campaign was a success, particularly in comparison to previous humanitarian crises where there had been no concerted action by the UN Security Council or the use of force had been by coalitions of the willing acting outside a strict interpretation of the UN charter.

 

Libya was an example of how the UN Security Council can take 'timely and decisive action' to implement the responsibility to protect (R2P). Yet even when there is UN authorisation, and where the military operation achieves its aims with relatively low numbers of civilian casualties and no loss of life in the intervening forces, the principle of R2P seems to provoke criticism.

Writing in The New York Times on 7 November 2011, David Reiff argued that the Libyan intervention had done 'grave, possibly irreparable, damage' to R2P. Its supporters, he added, ought to be mourning rather than celebrating. We are all agreed about the second point; interventions are only consistent with an R2P framework when an atrocity crime has either been committed or is likely to occur. On this basis, even a relatively successful intervention can never be cause for celebration. After all, intervention is only needed when prevention has failed.

Backlash against R2P

The backlash against R2P in some quarters of the Western media continues. This time it is not the dilemmas of action but the putative problem of inaction. Rodger Shanahan, writing in The Australian on 1 June 2012, argues that R2P is 'a theoretical construct' with 'little practical utility'. Pointing to the situation in Syria, his explanation for why R2P remains a 'lofty ideal' is that it is not 'implementable under all circumstances'.

Leaving to one side the fact that there is a great deal more to the idea of the exercise of responsible sovereignty than military action, Shanahan's analysis of the coercive application of R2P is flawed. To expect any framework for dealing with genocide and mass atrocities to generate a consistent response is lofty at best, reckless at worst. What if applying the same policy response resulted in making a humanitarian crisis even worse? His is a very unreal kind of realism.

UN coercion

Thankfully, the political leaders who adopted R2P in 2005 were much more pragmatic. Specifically, they were mindful of two simple facts, borne of experience. First, international action should be tailored to the specifics of each case. What might have been right for Libya may only inflame the situation further in Syria. Second, for the UN to coerce effectively, action must have the support of the Security Council. When the Council is divided it delivers weak resolutions that defy implementation. Rwanda and Bosnia stand as testament to why that route should be avoided.

Both of these hard-nosed political principles are embedded in the DNA of R2P: the Security Council must sanction coercion, and the Council must decide which course to take on a case-by-case basis. This is what R2P usually looks like: combinations of different tools, applied by different actors, usually well outside the gaze of all but close followers of UN affairs or those connected to the relevant regions.

Syria solution

Advancing unconvincing arguments in relation to R2P is much easier than setting out carefully reasoned arguments about what UN member states ought to be doing in relation to Syria, where no good options are on the table. International action has to be carefully calibrated to ensure that it applies pressure without adding fuel to the fire.

Even amid all the difficulties, the Council has found its voice. It pursued a diplomatic path with the Annan plan and the monitoring mission and has responded with unanimous moral condemnation to the Houla massacre. Council diplomats have debated Syria at least weekly since the conflict arose, finding a consensus around a political process monitored by observers.

It remains to be seen what steps are taken next. The painstaking diplomacy on the part of the current UN Secretary General and his predecessor Kofi Annan that brought about the agreement on the plan and the monitors was nothing short of remarkable given the political hand they were dealt (both diplomats, incidentally, justified their positions in R2P terms). One would be hard pressed to think that things would be better in Syria without the UN and without R2P.

Shanahan's critique also misses R2P's contribution to all of this. The debate about Syria today is not about whether to protect civilians from genocide and mass atrocities but how to do so. Nobody, not even the Russian Government, disputes the fact that the Syrian Government has a responsibility to protect its populations and should not be targeting them in the way that it is.

Even Russia has not denied the basic fact that the Syrian Government is failing to uphold decent standards of conduct. As result, it could not shy away from condemning Houla. In the coming weeks and months, Russia will find it more difficult to stand in the way of concerted international pressure on Syria.

Protection is a right

It was not always so. The transformation is much more recent than we might like to admit: in 2003-2004 (just before the R2P framework gained widespread acceptance) some 100,000 people were massacred in Darfur and two million forced from their homes.

R2P does not have all the answers about how to prevent mass atrocities and protect the victims. Nor does it guarantee that states will always agree. What it does have at its core is a principle that says that states should protect their populations and that the international community should take action to achieve that goal when the state manifestly fails to do so. The practice of R2P is the art of the possible: working out what is needed to protect civilians in particular situations and persuading the powers-that-be of the case.

In the long battle against genocide and mass atrocities, a battle that is being slowly won thanks in part to R2P, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Photo by Evstafiev Mikhail, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.