The fail­ure of an idea

The Washington Times Daily - - Politics - BY KIM R. HOLMES

The United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil passes a res­o­lu­tion not­ing “wide­spread and sys­tem­atic at­tacks” on civil­ians and au­tho­riz­ing U.N. mem­ber states “to take all nec­es­sary mea­sures . . . to pro­tect” them. It in­vokes a lit­tle-known con­cept called the re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect (or R2P) as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the use of force to stop the slaugh­ter of civil­ians.

Against which na­tion did the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil take this ac­tion? No, it wasn’t Syria. It was Libya. U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 1973, ap­proved on March 17, 2011, au­tho­rized the use of force against Libya “to pro­tect the Libyan pop­u­la­tion.” That was the sole jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the in­ter­ven­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

So why is there a so-called “re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect” Libyans but not Syr­i­ans? Af­ter all, the death toll in Syria — 8,000 to 9,000 — far ex­ceeds what was hap­pen­ing in Libya; yet the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil has not au­tho­rized an in­ter­ven­tion. You could ar­gue that a Syr­ian in­ter­ven­tion at least could ac­tu­ally stop the on­go­ing mas­sacres, as op­posed to stop­ping one that might oc­cur — the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the coun­cil tak­ing ac­tion against Libya.

There are ob­vi­ous rea­sons why the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ad­vo­cated the use of force in Libya but has not in Syria. It was tac­ti­cally and mil­i­tar­ily eas­ier to go into Libya. The Rus­sians and Chi­nese are more dug in against us­ing force in Syria. Many Arab states wel­comed Moam­mar Gad­hafi’s down­fall but fear the desta­bi­liz­ing ef­fects that over­throw­ing Bashar As­sad might have on Syria’s neigh­bors, in­clud­ing Iraq and Le­banon. And frankly, Euro­peans, par­tic­u­larly the French, saw more eco­nomic ad­van­tages from an in­ter­ven­tion in Libya than they see in Syria.

The use of force in Syria may in­deed be im­prac­ti­cal. But in­vok­ing R2P to jus­tify in­ter­ven­tion in Libya but not in Syria is hyp­o­crit­i­cal. Surely the lives of civil­ians in Syria are as worth sav­ing as the lives of civil­ians in Libya. The R2P doc­trine is pre­sented as a univer­sal moral im­per­a­tive and a guid­ing prin­ci­ple on when to use force. If it is a moral obli­ga­tion of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, R2P sup­port­ers would be equally ob­li­gated to ad­vo­cate the use of force when it is the best and only means to achieve their ends.

The mis­take R2P sup­port­ers make is us­ing the idea to jus­tify mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion. R2P never should have been in­voked in Libya. If the idea is, as ad­vo­cate Gareth Evans ar­gues, mainly to “gen­er­ate a re­flex­ive re­sponse” from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, it should never be de­ployed as a moral ar­gu­ment to ob­li­gate U.N. mem­ber states to sup­port an armed in­ter­ven­tion. It’s one thing to claim that all na­tion-states are ob­li­gated to pro­tect their cit­i­zens. It’s an­other to ar­gue that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is ob­li­gated to sup­port an armed in­ter­ven­tion. That should be re­served for self-de­fense or U.N. Char­ter Chap­ter VII in­ter­ven­tions au­tho­rized by the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to en­sure in­ter­na­tional peace and sta­bil­ity.

Some R2P sup­port­ers rec­og­nize the dilemma caused by the Libyan in­ter­ven­tion. Lloyd Ax­wor­thy, a for­mer Cana­dian for­eign min­is­ter, con­tends that R2P “should not be judged on the ba­sis of the mil­i­tary re­sponse in Libya.” Mr. Evans ar­gues that cir­cum­stances should de­ter­mine whether force, sanc­tions or some other mea­sure is used.

But it’s those cir­cum­stances that di­lute the moral power of R2P as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for us­ing force. Again, if force was a “last re­sort” for Libya, why not for Syria? If cir­cum­stances can ex­empt U.N. mem­ber states from un­der­tak­ing the only ac­tion that can truly stop the killing, what does that say about the na­ture of the obli­ga­tion?

The re­spon­si­bil­ity-to-pro­tect idea is fine so long as it ap­plies to how sov­er­eign gov­ern­ments should treat their peo­ple. But it fails as a guide for when the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should sup­port an armed in­ter­ven­tion.

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