'Responsibility to protect': the moral imperative to intervene in Syria
The moral imperative of the international 'responsibility to protect' doctrine, also known as R2P, compels the world to react and respond to the widespread persecution and killings in Syria.
La Jolla, Calif.
If ever there was a need for the use of the international legal doctrine known as “responsibility to protect,” the unfolding tragedy in Syria is it. Thousands of men, women, and children have been systematically shot, tortured, and killed by the Syrian government in its attempt to suppress what it sees as a dangerous and illegitimate uprising. The responsibility to protect doctrine (also known as R2P) is not, at this stage in its development, a full-fledged legal tenet; nevertheless, its status as an emerging norm in international law has had widespread acceptance.Skip to next paragraph
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Of course, policymakers in the United States and other countries are reluctant to embark on yet another round of military intervention. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, yesterday argued in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that any military intervention could further tax an already stretched American military and actually exacerbate the situation on the ground in Syria by igniting a civil war.
In addition, Syria is said to have five times the air defenses that Libya had, so it is understandable that many people are discomfited by the thought of more “boots on the ground.” Notwithstanding these legitimate challenges, the moral imperative established by R2P still compels the world to react and respond.
R2P is a relatively new concept in international law. In its embryonic form, it can be traced to statements made by former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992. Though he was later criticized for inaction on the Rwandan genocide, his early statements recognized the interdependence of the international system, whereby domestic atrocity anywhere could have systematic impact everywhere: "Civil wars are no longer civil, and the carnage they inflict will no longer let the world remain indifferent.”
His successor, Secretary General Kofi Annan (often more readily identified with R2P) continued to expand and establish the doctrine.
R2P’s current incarnation appeared in the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a committee created in 2001 under the auspices of the Canadian government but involving other members of the UN General Assembly. The central dilemma involved, on the one hand, the deeply rooted notion of sovereignty (a right that trumps nearly all others) and, on the other, the almost knee-jerk impulse to intervene on behalf of a besieged community.
Thus the report had to find an accommodation. It did so not by turning international law on its head but rather by redefining sovereignty to include the element of responsibility. That is, sovereignty still involves exclusive control and supremacy over a defined territory, but it now includes the primary responsibility of the state to protect its own citizens from so-called mass atrocity crimes – i.e., genocide, crimes against humanity, etc.
If the state cannot or will not live up to this basic responsibility, the traditional doctrine of non-intervention in internal affairs yields, and it is the international community’s responsibility to react and respond. This response begins with the least intrusive measures, like diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions. But if these are found wanting, more aggressive measures – including the use of military force – can and should be used.