[Ramesh Thakur is Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (CNND) in the Crawford School, Australian National University and Adjunct Professor in the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law at Griffith University.]
This post is part of the MJIL 13(1) Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.
Professor Spencer Zifcak has written an insightful article on a topic that is important, timely and will not go away. His analysis and conclusions are judicious, circumspect, balanced and, in consequence, stand the test of time since the article was written. I would like to make four points in summary and add three items to his analysis.
First, the use of force, no matter how benevolent, enlightened and impartial in intent, has empirical consequences and shapes the struggle for power and helps to determine the outcome of that political contest. This is why it is inherently controversial and contentious.
Secondly, the Responsibility to Protect (‘R2P’) is the normative instrument of choice for converting a shocked international conscience into decisive collective action — for channelling selective moral indignation into collective policy remedies — to prevent and stop atrocities. In the vacuum of responsibility for the safety of the marginalised, stigmatised and dehumanised out-group subject to mass atrocities, R2P provides an entry point for the international community to step in and take up the moral and military slack. Its moral essence is the acceptance of a duty of care by all those who live in zones of safety towards those trapped in zones of danger. It strikes a balance between unilateral interference and institutionalised indifference. But the precise point along the continuum is not easily ascertained in the fog of armed violence amidst chaos and volatility.
Thirdly, R2P was the discourse of choice in debating how best to respond to the Libya crisis. But the R2P consensus underpinning Resolution 1973 in 2011 was damaged by gaps in expectation, communication and accountability between those who mandated the operation and those who executed it. For NATO, the military operations, once begun, quickly showed up a critical gap between a no-fly zone and an effective civilian protection mandate. But back in New York, there was an unbridgeable gap between effective civilian protection, which Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (‘BRICS’) supported, and regime change, which they strongly opposed.
One important result of the gaps was a split in the international response to the worsening crisis in Syria. Both China and Russia, still smarting from the over-interpretation of Resolution 1973, have been defiantly opposed to any resolution that could set in train a sequence of events leading to a 1973-type authorisation for outside military operations in Syria.
Fourthly, the Libya controversy over the implementation of R2P notwithstanding, by 2012 there was no substantial opposition to R2P as a principle or norm — an international standard of conduct.