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.
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.
In the case of Syria, the Assad government has been deliberately targeting its own citizens by bombing, strafing, surrounding, and cutting off supplies to towns seen as disloyal to President Bashar al-Assad. In the neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs, for example, government troops have been trying to exterminate and “clean” all forms of resistance, with much of that resistance coming from hundreds of military defectors and ordinary citizens fed up with what they see as Mr. Assad’s brute force and naked aggression against his own people.
It is estimated that 7,000 people have been killed since the uprising began last March, and a United Nations panel recently concluded that “gross human rights violations” had been ordered as a matter of state policy. Homs is not an anomaly; other towns have endured similarly savage attacks, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has suggested that Assad might now be considered a “war criminal.”
What’s worse, the Syrian military shows no sign of relenting, even in the face of increasing isolation and opprobrium from the international community. With the direct support and encouragement of Assad and other senior government officials, the military seems hell-bent on crushing the uprising, even if it means using indiscriminate means to accomplish this goal. The recent bombings, in which foreign correspondents and photojournalists were killed (including an American), are a testament to this fact.
In the face of “gross human rights violations,” it is clear that Syria’s use of sovereignty as a shield is misplaced. The international community should now assume the responsibility that Syria has so flagrantly forfeited; that is, the Security Council, acting pursuant to Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes the use of force in the face of a threat to the peace or a breach of the peace, must now act on behalf of the besieged and embattled people of Syria.
Economic sanctions have not worked. Military force against Assad’s regime seems increasingly legitimate and just, as the condition for its use – serious human rights violations – is present.
It is incumbent upon the international community in general and the United Nations Security Council in particular to show that sovereignty not only implies responsibility but that there are serious consequences to be paid for flouting fundamental international norms.
If this means mobilizing military forces to assist the Syrian opposition, so be it. If Russia and China insist on blocking all Security Council resolutions, then other alternatives, including reliance on NATO and the Arab League, must be found. The General Assembly can do its part by passing a resolution in support of the mission, thereby giving cover to any future use of force.
R2P presents the international community with a solution to this problem. It is up to them – particularly the US – to muster the political will.
James P. Rudolph is a lawyer licensed in California and Washington, D.C. who focuses on international law and human rights. He worked at the US Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration.