At the ongoing G20 summit in Russia, Syria seems to have split word leaders into roughly three camps: those for doing something (the US, the UK, Canada, France, and Turkey), those staunchly opposed (Russia and China), and those who think some level of international consensus is critical before anything is done. Germany and Italy in particular offended François Hollande, who had hoped the EU would at least present a unified front.
At [the heart of the dispute] is the view of many world leaders that the US and France cannot legally mount their planned attack on Syria without a UN resolution, a view that Mr Cameron called “a dangerous doctrine”.Mr Cameron said Mr Obama was “not a warmonger” and that he was right to uphold international law and the principle of the “responsibility to protect”.The British premier said it was important to make that argument with “South Africa, Brazil and others” before blaming Russia and China for repeatedly blocking any action in the UN Security Council.
Mr. Cameron’s impassioned plea seemed to be falling on deaf ears. One German official even told the FT that the Russians didn’t need to make as strong a case for nonintervention as they did, given that there were plenty of convinced skeptics already present in the room.So is it time to bid adieu to “responsibility to protect”, the idea that the international community ought to intervene in cases where a state is either cruelly massacring its own people or is incapable of stopping genocidal violence among its various ethnic groups? Maybe, at least for the time being.While some parts of international law are well grounded and well secured in functioning institutions and solid consensus, “R2P” is more like a New Year’s resolution than an actual “law”. The problem with R2P is the same problem that cripples most activist international law more broadly: There is no overriding authority that everyone agrees to respect and obey—no analogue to a state’s government which tries to keep a monopoly on violence and which enforces breaches of the law.In the absence of that supreme international authority, nations will continue to act inconsistently, supporting or opposing R2P actions less from the standpoint of eternal principle than from national interest. As a result, things like R2P inevitably become political slogans rather than principles of international life—a sad but true fact.We encourage interested readers to have a look at the previous issue of The American Interest for a debate on the merits of R2P, both pro and con. Rajan Menon takes up the argument against R2P, and while the other side, ably argued by Seyom Brown and former Ambassador Ronald Neumann, makes the case that R2P is here to stay, it also takes an unsparing look at its flaw in principle and in historical practice.