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Firing blanks at R2P

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COMMENTS

11 July 2012 09:30

Tim Dunne is Professor of International Relations in the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P, University of Queensland. Sarah Teitt is a Research Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P.

There are many reasons why the application of coercive Western military power against Syria is a bad idea. Professor Hugh White is right about that in his recent contribution to the debate.

Those associated with the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have argued for a range of coercive and non-coercive measures against the Assad regime to prevent further atrocities. What the R2P movement has not done is advocate a military solution to the humanitarian problem. White is wrong to imply this has been the case.

Posts on this site and elsewhere on the Syrian crisis have lent strong support to coercive diplomacy and other measures short of military force. This is not because the R2P movement opposes force in all cases but because the R2P framework is a great deal more granulated than the simplistic intervention/non-intervention polarity often constructed by its critics.

In this light, many of the inferences White makes in relation to the lessons learned from Libya for the future of R2P are open to question.

First, White derides the idea of 'impartial intervention' as an 'illusion' and asks us to face the reality that 'the only way we can help stop civilians being killed is to help one side win the war'. The arrow of White's critique is surely aimed at traditional peacekeeping operations – guided by impartiality, neutrality and the non-use of force – rather than R2P operations. The failure of the orthodox peacekeeping doctrine during the Balkan wars was one of the drivers of the R2P framework. It was clear to R2P advocates that the international community had to take sides when the crime of genocide or ethnic cleansing was being committed. And as Alex Bellamy reminds us, taking sides can mean regime change, as the overthrow of Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Charles Taylor showed.

Second, the R2P framework recognises that while coercive military action may be necessary, it can never by free from bad moral consequences.

To assume, as White does, that R2P advocates are too ready to send in the cavalry ignores a core facet of the R2P framework in relation to decision-making on the use of force. Interventions consistent with R2P must not only have the authority of the UN Security Council, they should also exhaust all non-coercive possibilities and pass the test of proportionality. Even if these conditions are satisfied, it is perfectly consistent with the R2P framework to argue that military action should be averted if there is a reasonable chance it could do more harm than good.

Third, White questions whether the intervention in Libya has pointed to an 'open-ended responsibility to reconstruct' as part of the R2P framework. This is not an obligation that has received widespread diplomatic assent, and certainly not among Western capitals. Too often the international community has considered its mission accomplished when the spike in mass killings has diminished, yet chronic long-run atrocities keep occurring due mainly to economic and social deprivation and failing political institutions.

These structural conditions cannot be addressed through short-term military interventions. The limited attention span of Western capitals is perhaps the most significant challenge for R2P after Libya. For the cycle of violence to end, those states that are 'friends of R2P' must take the responsibility to rebuild more seriously.

As for Professor White's concern for a Syrian future after Assad, we seem to be inching closer to that day not through the overt threat or use of force but through tireless diplomacy on the part of the UN and through unrelenting scrutiny by humanitarian NGOs.

Western leaders may not have a choice but to plan for this eventuality. How we conceive of the problems of governance after this traumatic societal experience, how weapons are put beyond use, how ordinary people are put back to use and how civilian protection can be part of the international and domestic policy priorities in post-Assad Syria; these are the pressing political questions. Firing blanks at R2P is not the place to find answers.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations - Geneva.