R2P: More Harm Than Good?

There are better reasons to go to war in Syria, including under international law.

For the past two years, the world has stood by and watched as the Assad regime waged open and brutal war against its own citizens in Syria. Reports of torture, mass murder, civilian targeting, and the use of chemical weapons have been frequent. But only now, after the revelation of a large scale and horrendous chemical attack near Damascus, is there a serious chance of military action. Pretending the conflict does not exist simply is no longer an option. We are again inundated with calls for Western states and the United Nations Security Council to live up to their ‘responsibility to protect’ or R2P.

What is R2P? Put simply, it is a doctrine calling for fundamental alterations to our concepts of national sovereignty and security. Rather than the model of sovereignty that has dominated the international system for centuries, where states are granted legal sovereign status by virtue of being able to exercise power and authority over their people and territory, R2P sees sovereignty as conditional upon a state's’ willingness to protect its own people. In cases where a state or regime fails to live up to its duty, other states have a responsibility to intervene on behalf of those affected. There have been various iterations of R2P, starting with the original report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001, carrying through the much-eroded version endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2005, and the numerous interpretations proposed by scholars and advocates since. The doctrine is predicated on three pillars—first, the responsibility to prevent human insecurity; second, the responsibility to protect (read here intervention); and third, the responsibility to rebuild (read here regime change).

Throughout the life of R2P, the number of prominent thinkers and decision-makers backing it has grown significantly. R2P is also now a very powerful and effective political lobby group. Various think-tanks, research institutes, offices within national governments, and international organizations have all been formed since 2001 with the express purpose of advocating the growth and adoption of R2P principles. Often, these institutions have recruited well-known proponents of the doctrine and have played prominently in debates surrounding instances of human insecurity and atrocity. The development of the R2P lobby is surely seen by most as a positive influence in efforts to protect human populations suffering horrendous abuses, yet one cannot help but also ponder that they may also be serving to negatively impact state decision-making in cases of humanitarian crisis.

Prior to 2001 and the advent of R2P, humanitarian interventions did occur, and so did missions aimed at halting violence within states or between them. The notion of protecting civilians did not originate with R2P, and arguably, previous forms of intervention, though sporadic, achieved many of the same purposes desired by R2P proponents. What has changed most markedly with R2P is the linkage between sovereignty and legitimacy, and humanitarian intervention. Under the provisions of the doctrine, and according to many of its advocates, it is not enough to end violence. There is typically a desired response that sees full-scale military intervention followed by regime change (hence the reference to a responsibility to rebuild). In some ways, this makes perfect sense, in that it is extremely difficult to end violence or human suffering without putting external forces in place to protect them and overthrow the regime responsible for using the tools of violence in the first place—once a war criminal, always a war criminal.

Yet, since 2001, we have also witnessed a variety of intervention missions, some R2P-endorsed, others not, that have demonstrated the enormous risks and costs involved with long-term military deployments and nation building experiments. These missions are vast departures from traditional military missions, in that the enemy is very difficult to find and identify, foreign forces are rarely welcomed with a red carpet (and if they are, it is a short-lived celebration), and insurgent forces are more familiar with the terrain and local intricacies than external forces could ever be. Experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have been effective in scaring states away from wanting to embark on regime change and counterinsurgency missions, and the 2011 mission in Libya is a good example of what happens when interventionism is only taken half way without a long-term commitment.

None of this is to say that the R2P lobby is responsible for the debacles seen in recent military deployments, but rather, it is to say that continually calling for intervention and regime change in the wake of these experiences panics states more than it mobilizes them. Invoking morality has never been a compelling argument for states to act consistently in the cause of human security, and in a practical sense, the thought of committing to intervention missions with no clear end game other than realizing human security is irrational.