Few political principles have been marked for victory or defeat with greater frequency or fervor than the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
An explicit outline of state and international responsibilities to protect populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing, R2P was first articulated in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and adopted by the full spectrum of global leaders at the United Nations World Summit of 2005.
Over much of its first decade, the concept remained the purview of a narrow band of policymakers, experts, and advocates directly focused on mass atrocity threats and crises. Rarely making headlines, R2P inspired a number of peaceful policy responses to atrocity-related threats, including proactive global engagement in Kenya, Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, and South Sudan.
The United Nations Security Council’s invocation of R2P to authorize military action in Libya introduced the concept to a wider world. This dramatic debut raised the profile of the principle, but also distorted public understanding of its parameters and objectives – reducing it in the minds of many to a doctrine for military intervention.
Contrary to such perceptions, R2P is first and foremost an affirmation of the responsibility of governments to protect their own populations from the most heinous forms of civilian-targeted violence. Governments fail to protect their populations either because they are unable or unwilling to do so. For those unable, R2P charges the international community to help them meet their protection responsibilities. Long before crises erupt, it commits U.N. member states to help countries build institutions that provide stability and buffer against the risk of atrocity. When preventive efforts fail, R2P insists the world take action. The use of military force, however, rests explicitly on the inadequacy of peaceful measures to protect populations under threat.
Force, once exercised, is difficult to manage. Uncertainties lead to inevitable miscalculations and unintended consequences. The geopolitical complexities of most situations suggest that military intervention will do more harm than good.
Syria is one such case, further complicated by the expectations and apprehensions created by the Libya experience. International consensus has been bruised by serious disputes over the way in which the Libyan mandate was executed, just as the mounting crisis in Syria begs the world for unity.
R2P principles have informed various attempts to pressure the Assad regime through political engagement, sanctions, investigations and observer missions, and high-level mediation. Thus far, these measures have been consistently undermined by international divisions, parochial interests, and the unwillingness of those closest to the regime (namely Russia) to use their own leverage.
The challenges of the case, however, do not absolve the international community of its responsibility to protect Syrian civilians. As the ceasefire brokered by joint UN-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, reaches its deadline, the international community must continue to strive for a credible collective response – one that is suited to the complexities of the crisis and with the greatest prospects for protection for those under threat.