James Holmes

“Responsibility to Protect” Can’t Save Syria

R2P is just too sweeping to be practical, including in Syria. It’s time to search for more realistic options.

“Responsibility to Protect” Can’t Save Syria
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Elizabeth Arrott for Voice of America

Naval Diplomat colleague Tim Hoyt wades into the Syria debate over at War on the Rocks, reviewing several recent entries in the debate (including one from our own Zach Keck (try saying that three times fast)). I violently agree with most of what Tim says, especially when he voices skepticism toward Anne-Marie Slaughter’s advocacy on behalf of a “responsibility to protect” stricken populaces.

Populaces, that is, whose governments prove unwilling or unable to perform the functions entrusted to sovereign governments. First among these is providing a modicum of security for residents of the territory where a regime exercises sovereign jurisdiction. The idea underlying the responsibility to protect is that abusive or egregiously neglectful governments forfeit their immunity to outside intervention, as codified in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter (“Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state….”).

Now, safeguarding others is right and fitting. International lawyers and national leaders have long asserted a right to intervene in other nations’ internal affairs under certain limited circumstances, including gross humanitarian abuses. Grotius claimed such a prerogative in his classic works. Theodore Roosevelt appended an “international police power” to the Monroe Doctrine, while Franklin Roosevelt envisioned “Four Policemen” policing lawless zones on the map. FDR’s vision underlies the UN Security Council. But (and you knew there was going to be a but) it’s doubtful these early interventionists, the practical statesmen in particular, would have embraced the sort of all-encompassing doctrine Slaughter espouses.

To see why, let’s parse the wording. The notion of a responsibility to protect sounds awfully domestic, and awfully indivisible. Domestic police have a responsibility to protect people against lawbreakers, to do so whenever an infraction occurs, and to do so impartially. To invoke a common motto, police forces exist “to protect and serve” the entire populace. In theory, then, police forces are utterly apolitical. They respond to calls regardless of who the victim may be. To do otherwise — to show favoritism among citizens — betrays their sworn duty.

So what? Why not agree that the international community should reverse all humanitarian abuses, much as police forces fight crime in our cities? Well, as every International Relations 101 student learns on day one of the class, there’s no world government and, in turn, no apolitical world police force to keep order between or — still less — within nation-states. Unsatisfying as it may be, the best substitute for such a body is the United Nations, and in particular its enforcement arm, the Security Council.

To take effect, a Security Council resolution needs the assent of all five permanent members, namely Great Britain, France, the United States, Russia, and China. Presumably the council could enact a blanket resolution putting the responsibility to protect into action. UN forces would act whenever some government butchered or otherwise abused its citizenry. (How the Security Council would raise a standing force is another question entirely.) To do otherwise, after all, would be to shirk the world’s responsibility to protect those who need it most.

Does anyone think the permanent five members would agree to issue such a writ? Me neither. Dissension has blocked even relatively uncontroversial measures such as an endorsement of the Proliferation Security Initiative, the counterproliferation consortium now entering its second decade. It’s farfetched in the extreme, then, to think the Security Council would agree on a blanket authorization for international intervention.

That leaves the Security Council where it is now, acting — or not — on a case-by-case basis. It also readmits politics to a supposedly dispassionate law-enforcement process. Which brings us back to Syria, where the council has been deadlocked with no breakthrough is in sight. Nor is one likely. Neither Moscow nor Beijing is likely to lend its imprimatur to any resolution that might be reinterpreted into something alien to its framers’ intent. That’s what happened in 2011, when governments used a very limited UN resolution as a pretext to bring down Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya.

On this point I find myself reluctantly agreeing with Presidents Putin and Xi. Assenting to “living” Security Council resolutions — measures that might be decoupled from their original meaning — sets a dangerous precedent. It’s doubtful Moscow or Beijing will make that mistake a second time.

So, what to do to succor the afflicted? For one thing, let’s stop getting hung up on abstractions and refocus on helping real people under siege. The Syria debate has been surreal in that interventionists appear to get more exercised about “norms” like the one against chemical-weapons use, or about legal doctrines like the responsibility to protect, than about finding ways to provide concrete help.

Once we abandon whimsy — and resign ourselves to working within political reality — then maybe we can figure out how to protect those who need it. The limited, incremental approach may be less satisfying than a legal mandate enacted by a parliament of man. But it’s apt to do more good.