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Syria and R2P: Time for a middle ground

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6 June 2012 08:56

Yang Razali Kassim, currently a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute, is a Senior Fellow with Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Frustrated. That's the word Kofi Annan used last week to express anguish over his apparent helplessness to push through a ceasefire in the blood-letting in Syria. As a joint special envoy of the UN and the Arab League, Annan's frustration is the frustration of the international community. It seems the world can only look on as the Assad regime rages on with impunity in its bloody crushing of the people's uprising.

Annan's exasperation is a tragic reflection of the UN's excruciating stalemate in Syria despite the world body's fledgling doctrine of humanitarian intervention, called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which it adopted in 2005. 

But why should we be surprised with this diplomatic quagmire?

One wonders whether plans for international humanitarian intervention would face such a big hurdle in Syria had R2P not been mishandled in Libya last year. To be sure, that ground-breaking intervention in Libya to protect unarmed civilians from the atrocities of the Qadhafi regime was the right thing to do. Defenceless people inspired by events in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring were being massacred as they rose up to be free of autocratic rule.

The decision to intervene in Libya won wide support, including from the Arab League. Even the main detractors of R2P, Russia and China, did not veto Resolutions 1970 and 1973 enabling intervention in Libya, primarily because there was assurance from the UN that it would not lead to regime change. That was key: When R2P was first proposed a decade ago, its proponents were at pains to stress R2P was not, and should not be, about regime change but about the international community's responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities. 

But when Qadhafi fell and subsequently died at the hands of the rebels, the R2P detractors concluded that this was not what they had  voted for. The interventionists, especially France and Britain, argued in defence that the dynamics on the ground were such that Qadhafi's fall was an inevitable consequence of the civil strife.

But the Libyan experience changed the tide against R2P. Russia and China have since hardened their positions over intervention in Syria. They acted in tandem to veto initiatives they feared could lead to a replay of Libya and to the fall of Assad.The UN sees it as Syria's internal crisis. Assad sees it as an external war imposed on his country.

Given the stalemate, some commentators have declared  R2P dead. But is it?

There is an urgent need for a middle ground. The international community should not stand idly by in the face of mass atrocities. Yet international humanitarian intervention must not be done in a way that would undermine the world's long-standing faith in the sovereignty of the state. This is, no doubt, a monumental task, as events in Libya and Syria have starkly shown. But a way out must be found for the international community to live with a clear conscience. 

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Information Service - Geneva.

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