To what extent does the West have a ‘right’ to intervene in Syria? For pro-intervention European politicians and commentators, the key to justifying action in Syria is the ‘responsibility to protect’ (commonly referred to as the R2P) doctrine. This, it is argued, has substantively changed international law meaning that intervention on humanitarian grounds, even without United Nations Security Council authorisation, would not be illegal. Downing Street, for example, has explicitly stated that intervention would be legally based upon humanitarian grounds. Neither US secretary of state John Kerry nor President Barack Obama has appealed to the R2P specifically. But in a recent report, Madeleine Albright and Richard Williamson urged the US government to invoke it.
Yet the conviction held by some that the R2P is a tried-and-tested, legally compelling justification for intervention involves a re-writing of very recent history. In fact, the R2P has always been symptomatic of the failure of the West to generate new international norms around intervention, let alone establish a legal basis for it.
At its inception, the R2P was the subject of a report drawn up by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, under the sponsorship of the Canadian Government in the aftermath of the 1999 Kosovo intervention. During the 1990s, Western governments, pro-intervention commentators and academics argued that in cases of serious human-rights violations, there should be a right to intervene and breach the sovereignty of the state in which abuses were occurring. As opposed to the norm of non-intervention as codified in the UN charter, it was argued that there was an emerging international norm of humanitarian intervention.
The Western intervention in Kosovo was, as then UK prime minister Tony Blair argued, a war for ‘values’. It was done without Security Council authorisation (as Russia would not agree to the intervention) and the intervention was done under the auspices of NATO, a regional security organisation. While the British government argued that although illegal, intervention in Kosovo was moral, states such as India, China and Russia argued against eroding the norm of non-intervention and the primacy of state sovereignty. Anti-intervention academics and commentators argued that humanitarian intervention was simply a cover for powerful states to intervene in weaker ones at will.
The R2P was an attempt to subdue this debate and retrospectively to justify the Kosovo intervention. The R2P explicitly shifted the terms of the debate away from the unwinnable sovereignty-versus-intervention debate towards a focus on the victims of civil wars and human-rights abuses. That is, if a state were abusing its citizens, then it was no longer sovereign as it was failing to fulfil its most basic responsibility: to protect those citizens. In such circumstances, the international community would then have a right and a duty to intervene. This could be conducted under the auspices the UN Security Council, but if there were no agreement, then any coalition or regional security organisation would suffice.