After Libya and Syria: Can R2P Survive?

For many, the UN and NATO action in Libya has been a validation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.  In response to a strong global consensus on the imminence of a major attack on civilian populations, the international community came together with unprecedented speed to support a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians from harm in Libya.  In the end, NATO forces effectively removed the threat to the citizens of Benghazi and Misrata. Qaddafi’s removal from power begins a new chapter in Libyan history.

For critics, however, Libya is yet another example of selective international concern for civilian populations. Swift UN decision making and robust NATO military action in oil rich Libya only highlights the disparity in international responses on-going violence elsewhere, particularly in Syria.  Throughout the summer, many critics asked:  Why Libya and not Syria?   After all, in recent months civilians in both appeared to be victims of one of the four delineated crimes of R2P – crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and ethnic cleansing.  

The selective application and the shift from civilian protection to regime change calls into question whether or not R2P can become anything more than a tool for ad hoc responses to violence against civilians.  The doctrine’s major promise when it was unanimously adopted at the World Summit in 2005 was that it would become the needed corrective to episodes of mass atrocity and that it would contribute to broader transformation of global society.

Is selective application the death knell for R2P? It is a remarkably young doctrine, and exists within a state-based international system that has significant political and military constraints.  There are many circumstances in which external military intervention, regardless of exigent circumstances, will not be a viable option.  For example, if China were to crack down aggressively with military force against some form of separatist uprising in Tibet or Xinjiang Provinces, the international community could condemn it, but there would be no real military options for a response.  For that matter, there would be no major military option if any one of a number of major powers committed R2P-delineated crimes.  

Unlike the rebels who had gained control of Libya’s second largest city, opposition demonstrators in Syria are a disparate group of urbanites that controls no territory.  The Syrian regime has been delegitimized by its use of violence, but it retains complete control over a strong military and security apparatus.   By almost all accounts, intervention would take an Iraq-like invasion force and there are few historical indications to suggest that interventions (or wars) of that magnitude actually save lives.  As Rory Stewart and others have posited, there is no moral obligation to act in a situation where there is no possibility to save lives or when intervention will make matters worse.

It’s also important to remember that R2P is not a singular policy instrument.  Intervention is only one part of a doctrine that includes calls for resources and commitments to prevent conflict, to respond to conflicts, and then to rebuild after conflicts.  R2P is wrapped up in a broader set of conflict management strategies that have expanded dramatically in the past twenty years. It now includes a dramatic increase of global humanitarian assistance efforts, more targeted development aid to build state capacity, more robust and successful peacekeeping missions, and more comprehensive post-conflict stabilization, reconstruction, and reconciliation efforts.

According to Joshua Goldstein in his new book Winning the War on War:  The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (Dutton, 2011), it is this comprehensive package that is contributing to a noticeable and dramatic decline in the frequency and intensity of war (both interstate and intrastate) across the globe. Data from peace researchers in Sweden and Norway have shown that interstate war has been in decline for almost five decades while civil wars, and most notably civilian casualties from all types of conflict worldwide, are also now in significant decline.

In other words, while the world is still experiencing (albeit reduced) violence against civilians and Syria has proven a complex challenge for the international community, R2P is embedded in a changing set of norms and expectations about state behavior.  Those norms and expectations, as well as the wider set of international conflict management strategies and institutions, are stronger and more effective than at any other time in history, and appear to be showing results in reducing war.   In the end, critics might balk at selective application and at some elements of the UN and NATO actions in Libya. But how we measure the ultimate efficacy and strength of R2P, and whether or not it has a future, is almost certainly dependent on whether or not the current decline in war continues.  At least for now, those signs are encouraging.