R2P: how the West failed to justify intervention

The ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine is a symbol of the West’s inability to define its post-Cold War role.

Tara McCormack

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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.

For a few years, the R2P generated plenty of academic articles but little else. Supporters of the R2P bemoaned the failure of the international community to adopt the principle in Sudan for example, with many feeling that the debacle in Iraq had turned even the pro-intervention left away from the R2P.

This wasn’t the end of the R2P as a basis for intervention, however. The UN formally cited the principle in a resolution passed by the UN General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit (see paragraph 138); UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon has issued several reports about how to implement it; and UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya mentioned that the Libyan government had a responsibility to protect its citizens.

So does this amount to a new legal right or even a new norm of intervention? The short answer is no. The R2P may have become a popular idea within some sections of Western elites, but being cited in a General Assembly grand resolution or even in passing in a UN Security Council resolution does not mean that it has the force of international law.

Indeed, international law is little more than a collection of interstate treaties, conventions, agreements and rules which states agree to as part of membership of international organisations. There is no neutral global-enforcement body or arbitrator or global legislator (domestic law is generally understood to be legitimate because it derives from the will of the citizens to whom it applies) or even a clear source of international law. The UN Charter gives the right to decide on questions of international peace and security to the UN Security Council. This is an entirely pragmatic body reflecting the power relations at the end of the Second World War when America set up the UN. There are also bodies that act in a legalistic manner: states can appeal to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) if they believe another state has violated a treaty, while states may find themselves referred to the new International Criminal Court (ICC) if other states believe they have breached human rights. But the ICC, for instance, is not a body that derives its force from law; rather, it represents powerful Western states acting, mostly, against non-Western (particularly African) states. There is a very legitimate question to be asked about whether international law should really be termed law as such.

However, even if we were to take the assumption about international law at face value, the R2P still does not have the force of, say, an international treaty or a convention. UN reports, General Assembly resolutions, and also Security Council resolutions are packed with references to all sorts of pledges, hopes, goals. There is nothing of that substance with the R2P.

The problem with the R2P was not Iraq, but that the R2P was unable to overcome the failure of the West to win international support for a new norm of Western-led intervention. For example, Alex Bellamy, an academic advocate of the R2P, quotes the Indian ambassador to the UN, Nirupam Sen, on the subject of the R2P: ‘We do not believe that discussions on the question [of R2P] should be used as a cover for conferring any legitimacy on the so-called “right of humanitarian intervention” or the ideology of some kind of “military humanism”. The rule of international law, Sen argued, “should protect weak and vulnerable states from the arbitrary exercise of power by the strong”.’

In fact, rather than resolving the contested question of intervention, the R2P can be understood to represent the evasion of this debate. The R2P was an explicit attempt to depoliticise the main points of contention and reframe the debate in terms of a moral consensus. Thus, in the absence of broader political agreement over the post-Cold War role of the West, the R2P was part of an attempt to reframe the West’s role in moral terms. Drawing up extensive lists of criteria against which to judge the ‘justness’ of an intervention cannot resolve the question either; it simply repeats the question in a different form.

The real significance of the R2P, then, is the failure of powerful Western states to generate new global norms around intervention. What is striking in the current situation is how difficult it has been to garner support for intervention in Syria even within the West. This reveals just how weak humanitarian intervention was as a source of Western coherence, an ersatz morality which has failed to really convince anyone, even in its heartlands in Washington and London.

Questions of whether to go to war are ultimately political and moral ones. Whether to go to war, to kill real people with bombs, to destroy their infrastructure so that people die from dirty water or easily preventable diseases is not a question to be decided according to international law. If there is no political or moral consensus, then there can be no agreement. Does it make any sense morally to invoke the R2P in the context of the alleged chemical weapons use? No, it is completely arbitrary at this stage in the incredibly destructive civil war in Syria. There is not a drop of reason behind the argument that the death of hundreds killed by gas is more of a tragedy than the thousands killed by conventional weaponry in Syria. Or perhaps even more to the point, the death of hundreds killed in gas attacks is not more of a tragedy than the killing of hundreds in the course of the Western-approved coup in Egypt, or the many thousands killed directly by the West in the two wars against Iraq and in Afghanistan.

It is hard to think of anything less moral than the idea of intervention in Syria, an idea that refuses to go away despite recent horse-trading between Russia and the US. However, in one sense there is an urgent need for the West to adopt a responsibility to protect those in Syria – a responsibility to refrain from causing yet more death and destruction.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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