Emerging Voices: Limits to R2P–Lessons from the Arab Spring Conflicts

Emerging Voices: Limits to R2P–Lessons from the Arab Spring Conflicts

[Aqsa Mahmud graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and currently practices as a government attorney in Washington, DC]

The international community’s application (or nonapplication) of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to the recent Arab conflicts highlights notable limits to R2P. R2P is a relatively new doctrine that holds States responsible for protecting their populations and, where the sovereign fails, allows for foreign intervention. Although independent reports have proposed a test for application, the international community has not adopted a set criterion. Every situation of R2P’s potential use—whether applied or not—should be examined. In both Libya and Syria, the governments used military force against civilians and failed to protect their populations; however, R2P was only applied to Libya. The disparate application of R2P in Syria, in comparison to Libya, illustrates several limiting factors that will guide R2P in future scenarios.

Foremost, the Libya-Syria distinction shows that R2P application depends on, and is limited by, regional attitudes towards aggressive international action. This factor reflects the primary difference between the decision to intervene in Libya and not Syria. In the case of Libya, regional organizations showed their contempt for the Qaddafi regime early on. As the conflict escalated, organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) supported aggressive measures such as a no-fly zone. These options were already being debated at the international level but regional attitudes legitimized a hardline approach. A regional consensus on the Libyan conflict and against the Qaddafi regime activated Security Council members who, at that time, included non-permanent members associated with the region. Some have gone so far as to say that Resolution 1973 would have been impossible absent the position of the League of Arab States (LAS). Of importance, these regional organizations presented a general consensus on the deterioration of the humanitarian situation and need for aggressive action. They did not, however, envision or promote the same type of response. Thus, future use of R2P will likely depend on a general regional consensus in support of aggressive international action.

In comparison, the Syrian conflict failed to generate the type of regional support seen for Libya. The Syrian conflict raised concern without a solidified position for aggressive action against the government. This reflects the difference in regional opinion and assistance to the conflict and arguably delays international action. For example, Lebanon functioned as a regional representative to the Security Council in 2011 and voted in favor of Resolution 1973 regarding Libya. Yet, later that year, it abstained from voting on a draft resolution condemning the Syrian government’s actions against anti-government protestors. The importance of regional organizations cannot be overstated. Regional attitudes were a moving force for Resolution 1973 and silence arguably weakened the support for R2P language to apply in Syria. As in the Arab conflicts, future intervention will likely come through the authorized international body that draws legitimacy from the general regional attitude towards the particular conflict. Thus, R2P is limited by regional attitudes unable to agree on aggressive measures, as in the case of Syria.

Second, the Syrian situation illustrates a developing trend for R2P intervention that favors action through the Security Council, limiting R2P application through unilateral measures. Unilateral action is legally arguable under R2P absent Security Council resolution. However, following the failure of the 2011 draft resolution on Syria, no country has unilaterally applied R2P’s Third Pillar. Countries have taken independent action such as sanctions but explicitly avoided the use of military force. As the Alex Bellamy article recounts, both the United States and the United Kingdom have been cautious in proceeding outside the Security Council in the post-Iraq environment.  The post-Iraq environment dissuades unilateral and “unauthorized” military action with preference for the Security Council’s authority to use of force. This appears to be a continuing trend in R2P application, favoring foreign intervention to international collaboration above unilateral action.

Third, the Libya-Syria distinction shows that early use of R2P language sets the natural course for monitoring the situation in context of R2P; and application of the doctrine grows more difficult over time and as the conflict progresses. In the case of Libya, the Security Council issued a press statement less than two weeks into the conflict, noting the government’s responsibility to protect the population. It subsequently adopted Resolution 1970, including “responsibility to protect” in the chapeau. By placing language referring to state responsibility, the Security Council set the course for R2P application and eventual intervention. Regional organizations, such as the League of Arab States (LAS), issued their own resolutions referring to the humanitarian crisis and supporting Council action to protect the human population. It is important to note that regional actors did not have to explicitly refer to R2P because the Security Council had already adopted an early tone for R2P application. They only needed to support the Security Council’s use of aggressive measures, which would inevitably be crafted under R2P.

In contrast to Libya, the Security Council explicitly avoided R2P language in its early communications on Syria. Its March 2012 press statement called upon the parties to work with the international community, which hints at, but ultimately avoids any reference to R2P’s Second Pillar. In its May 2012 press statement, the Council condemned the Syrian government for attacking civilians without any mention of the state’s responsibility and effectively closed the discussion by reiterating the principle of sovereignty. R2P language finally emerged in Council communications but years after the conflict began. Other UN organs have described the deteriorating crisis in R2P terms. However, as the entity authorized to use military force, the Council has not adopted any resolution with R2P language despite the worsening situation. There is currently no indication that the Security Council will apply R2P in Syria, especially since the situation would likely fall under the  “Third Pillar” and require foreign intervention.

Finally, both Libya and Syria highlight the continuing tension between humanitarian intervention and traditional sovereignty that will limit future R2P application. Sovereignty plays a prominent role in the foreign policies of nation-states; and, in the wake of Resolution 1973, many of the Security Council’s members voiced concern over the use of R2P for regime change. In the case of Syria, both China and Russia have voiced their opposition to interfering with Syrian domestic affairs, and they have repeatedly vetoed draft resolutions that condemn the Syrian government or use R2P language. It is important to note that the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, resulting in foreign intervention. However, subsequent criticism and hesitancy in applying R2P in Syria show that Resolution 1973 should not be viewed as precedent. Instead, subsequent treatment of humanitarian crises, such as Syria, serve as a cautionary message that R2P application is limited in situations calling for aggressive action in the State’s domestic affairs, especially when such action would result in regime change.

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Emerging Voices, Foreign Relations Law, International Human Rights Law, Middle East
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A Correction

The author misrepresents the third pillar of R2P. It encompasses numerous policy options besides military intervention. The author writes that “However, following the failure of the 2011 draft resolution on Syria, no country has unilaterally applied R2P’s Third Pillar. Countries have taken independent action such as sanctions but explicitly avoided the use of military force.”
This is misunderstanding of the third pillar. In the report introducing the three pillar formulation of R2P, the UN Secretary General wrote that “pillar three encompasses, in addition to more robust steps, a wide range of non-coercive and non-violent response measures under Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter” (para. 51). He goes on to give numerous examples of third pillar policy options – including sanctions. http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/63/677