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Syria's Latest Casualty: R2P?


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.

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  • Pete

    ” …. the “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”

    Unfortunately in the real world, R2P boils down to America doing the protecting — paying in blood and money — while the rest of the world either 1) watches, 2) carps from the side line or 3) provides token support that is typically more trouble than it is worth.

    As such, R2P should be buried.

    • Corlyss

      Amen. The idea always did fly in the face of international law; there never was any realism embedded in it. Nations have to look out for their interests, which in the West’s case DO NOT include flaunting the West’s once superior morality over the rest of the world. Other nations and cultures often live in several completely different and alien moral universes. It’s not that I think Western morality is not superior any more; it’s that the West has lost faith in its own moral superiority. With massive secularization and coarse cultural relativism undermining the religious principles, which always was THE only source of that morality, the West seems perfectly content to eradicate one of the elements that made it truly superior and which created the climate that so many strive to flee to. We can’t make the rest of the world think like us if they have not had our experiences. It’s that simple. We can’t give them the results of experiences that make us great; they have to actually have the experiences and earn from them the way we did. (That’s a lesson for the socialists’ dreams of equality thru redistribution as well.)

  • wigwag

    It’s not R2P, that’s the anachronism, its respect for the saliency of international law that is anachronistic. Anyone who wants to learn how ridiculous the whole concept of international law is, should read “The Perils of Global Legalism” by Eric A. Posner,

  • Andrew Allison

    IMO this post confuses the R2P issue by failing to recognize that a nation state has a R2P is citizens, but that the protection of the citizens of another state is an international obligation. I agree with the argument that a requiring a resolution from the irresolute body misnamed “United” Nations (which is united only in it’s anti-Americanism) is ridiculous. But unilateral action on the part of one or two states cannot be justified. If NATO or some other multi-national alliance wants to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Assad, fine but it is not the responsibility of the US to be the protector of the entire world.

  • Michael Brazier

    “Responsibility to protect” is the very thing the Peace of Westphalia cast out of international law as an incitement to perpetual war and decimation of nations. Bringing it back into international law risks bringing back wars of the kind the Peace of Westphalia ended. I question whether the people talking up R2P understand the dangers implied by their principle – if the vision of another Thirty Years’ War fought with 21st century weapons doesn’t terrify you, you must be unconscious or crazy.

  • Notjack

    R2P seems to only apply to US armed forces.

    Why is that? Seriously. The only people on the planet who are expected to die to protect others are Americans. And then we are called war mongers and racists.

    Until you, your sons and daughters are willing to grab a weapon and put your life at risk Mr. Meade, I suggest you shut up.

    The irony is that currently our R2P is to protect Muslims, who moderate or not, are happy to either kill us, or celebrate when extremist Muslims kill us.

  • lukelea

    “responsibility to protect”, the idea that the international community ought to intervene . . .

    Why not make the international community a fact rather than a figure of speech. The United Nations hasn’t worked out. Start over. Rule #1: democracies only.

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