MJIL Symposium: A Response to Ramesh Thakur and Thomas Weiss by Spencer Zifcak
[Spencer Zifcak is Allan Myers Professor of Law and Director of the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University.]
This post is part of the MJIL vol13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.
I begin this response by acknowledging the two commentators. Ramesh Thakur and Tom Weiss are, together with Gareth Evans, the pre-eminent writers in the field — as well as each having played formative role in the creation of the Responsibility to Protect (‘R2P’) doctrine in the first place. So, it is a privilege that both have chosen to write a commentary on my article and it is my pleasure now to respond.
Plainly, Professor Thakur and I agree on his four summative points, so there is no need for me to comment further on them. He does, however, point to three matters he believes I have missed, so, let me say something about each.
Professor Thakur observes that, in the Syrian case, a perverse incentive exists for the Syrian rebels to respond brutally to governmental repression in order to internationalise the conflict and thereby encourage external intervention on their side. I had neither seen any prior commentary to this effect nor had this occurred to me. So, I’m grateful for the observation.
My only reservation about it is that it does seem to me difficult to make any valid, general comment about how the rebels are thinking, and why they are acting in the way that they are, because the rebel cause is so divided. As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley note in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, the opposition is an eclectic assortment of ‘Muslim Brothers, Salafis, peaceful protesters, armed militants, Kurds, soldiers who have defected, tribal elements and foreign fighters’. And then there is Al-Qaeda. So, I accept completely that some parts of the rebel leadership will be angling for external intervention but I’m not at this stage sure which ones and how representative they are. Further, if brutality and crimes against humanity are part of a rebel strategy, it does seem to be counter-productive. It is clear that international support for the rebel cause has waned in direct proportion to the increasing number of reports emerging from Syria of rebel atrocities. And so has support within Syria itself. If a vote were taken of Syrians now, it is by no means clear that the rebels would prevail over the regime.
Professor Thakur then refers to the existence of the Sunni-Shi’a split in the country and in the region. I don’t think I missed this one but may not have made it as explicit as it should be. The tragedy within Syria is that initial calls for democratic reform have morphed into a fully-fledged civil war on Sunni-Shi’a lines. And Professor Thakur is right to point to the fact that the Sunni-Shi’a battle has profound regional implications as well. Again, tragically, the civil war has drawn influential regional actors into the fray, so much so that the Syrian conflict already appears, at one level, to be a proxy war between Iran/Iraq on one side, and the Saudis, Qataris and allies, on the other. This is one critical factor that militates against any form of external intervention, as any intervention will alienate significant regional powers with unpredictable and inevitably adverse consequences both ways.
Professor Thakur points to my failure to discuss the Brazilian ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ (‘RWP’) proposal. He is right. I didn’t. I footnoted it and that is all. There were two reasons for this. First, I’ve read it many times and have not found it particularly helpful. In my view, it is not much more than a statement of the obvious, in the wake of the mistakes made by the international community in the Libyan case. Secondly, one of my major objectives in the article was to encapsulate the standing of R2P following Libya and Syria. I did that in a series of propositions at the end of each section. These propositions in part resemble those in the Brazilian document but are more specific, detailed and, I hope, more helpful. So, I didn’t want to muddy these waters by setting out to compare and contrast the two encapsulations. And since one was my own, obviously I chose to give it most prominence. Professor Thakur is right, however, to point out that the Brazilian concept note has provoked some new thinking. So, I will take that as an encouragement to explore the discussion while maintaining my reservations about the Brazilian note itself.
Professor Thakur points to two key elements in the RWP proposal that he believes are significant. The Security Council should ensure that it sets in place a monitoring and review mechanism when any intervention is commenced so as to ensure compliance with the Council’s resolutions. It should also formulate an agreed set of criteria on the basis of which to debate and mobilise consensus upon an R2P military intervention.
The second one is interesting. Gareth Evans has been a tireless advocate of the Security Council’s adoption of such prudential criteria and I am in wholehearted agreement with him on this. I note that Professor Thakur too, has joined Evans in a recent letter in which both support the deployment of the prudential criteria developed in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (‘ICISS’) report, the High-Level Panel report and Kofi Annan’s In Larger Freedom. It was in this context that I wrote the sentence that appears to have surprised Professor Weiss. In the article, I wrote that ‘judgments as to whether and when to intervene are likely in the foreseeable future to be made case by case rather than according to predetermined, universally applicable principles’. This was a reference to my earlier discussion about the desirability of adopting prudential criteria. There is substantial opposition, not least amongst the P-5 to the Security Council’s adoption of the criteria, but one can always hope.
I note Professor Weiss’s comment that applying universal principles may have a detrimental effect. I’m not sure whether he was referring here to Evans-Thakur prudential criteria or something else. But if it was in relation to the criteria, I think his criticism is misconceived. It is precisely to avoid the prospect of double-standards that I support the criteria’s application. The South would have far more confidence that they would not be subject to neo-imperial meddling if they could be assured that the relevant criteria including necessity, proportionality and balance of consequences were consistently and openly discussed and applied when decisions as to intervention were being made.
He may be right on another point, however. Yes, it’s true, lawyers love criteria. We think they’re really useful as a means of structuring constructive deliberation and decision-making. But political scientists? Perhaps we are as different as Weiss surmises.
On another matter, Professor Weiss is clearly right. Humanitarian impulse rather than humanitarian imperative is the better descriptor. I will use it. But his last sentence rather puzzles me.
On what basis can it properly be said that if Assad leaves Syria, his exit will have in part been attributable to the R2P norm? Apart from the occasional and cursory reference to R2P in Security Council resolutions decrying the regime’s failure to protect its people from atrocity, for reasons I’ve outlined in some considerable detail, the Syrian case is passing R2P by. Neither the regime, nor its rebel opponents, nor the major regional and international players, seem to be concerned with it at all. Each pursues its agenda with absolute ruthlessness.
R2P is a noble doctrine. For the time being, however, it will have to play on a different and less contested field.