[Viewpoint] Syria: R2P

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[Viewpoint] Syria: R2P

The tragedy in Syria has presented the world, and the Arab League, with still another challenge to the emergence of a “responsibility to protect” as an actionable international legal norm.

R2P, as it is often called, has its intellectual and legal roots in the shock and revulsion that followed the failure of the world community to prevent a genocide in Rwanda nearly two decades ago - a failure that led Kofi Annan, then the UN secretary general, to ask how much bloodshed would be necessary before human consciences would be stirred to stop it.

Rwanda and other humanitarian tragedies within a nation’s borders gave rise to a more restrictive interpretation of international law. National sovereignty is not absolute. It is balanced by the responsibility of sovereign governments to protect their citizens from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. If a government is unwilling or unable to stop such crimes, the international community through the UN must take action.

Such actions begin with assistance and advice to governments in their efforts to protect their people; if peaceful efforts fail, sanctions and even military intervention can be employed, but only with the approval of the Security Council. This concept was adopted unanimously - somewhat surprisingly, because of its controversial nature - by the world’s leaders at the UN Global Summit of 2005.

There are several key differences between R2P and the older concept of “humanitarian intervention,” which has been used by outside governments and coalitions to intervene either with or without UN approval in humanitarian crises. Such interventions included that by NATO in Kosovo in 1999 and by Vietnam in Cambodia in 1978. R2P seeks to forestall problems through early, peaceful assistance and intervention, and requires the UN Security Council to approve any punitive steps should peaceful means fail. The Feb. 4 vote showed that the council, placed as it is at the intersection of humanitarianism and power politics, is not yet able to act decisively to play its necessary role to end bloodshed.

The military intervention by NATO in Libya early last year was the first time the Security Council had put R2P into practice; the council was able to act because Russia and China abstained rather than vetoed a resolution allowing military intervention to protect civilians. While ultimately successful, the intervention also stoked fears among die-hard proponents of absolute national sovereignty that their narrow political interests could be put at risk by restraining governments from cracking down on rebellious populations.

Such is the case in Syria, where the still-developing Arab Spring has taken an especially bloody turn. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have killed nearly 6,000 Syrians in efforts to quell unrest against his authoritarian regime. Using rhetoric and methods eerily similar to those employed by his father in earlier years and by Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi before his ouster, Assad ordered his troops to use heavy weapons against protests in Homs and in areas near Damascus.

A Security Council resolution put to a vote last week called for an end to the violence, a return of Syrian military to their barracks and cooperation by Syria with a heretofore thwarted Arab League observer mission.

Despite late changes in the resolution’s language that barred outside military intervention and dropped an endorsement of a plan for Assad to step down, Russia and China vetoed the resolution, saying it unfairly blamed the Syrian government for the violence. Behind those announced motives are likely Russia’s leading role as a supplier of military hardware to Assad’s regime and China’s concern about its own restive minorities.

Reaction to the vetoes was swift and sharp. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, called the council’s failure to act “disgusting,” and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the results of the vote were a “great disappointment.” The EU promised additional unilateral sanctions on Syria; even the Muslim Brotherhood reacted, calling for a boycott of Russian and Chinese products. At least one Arab state, Tunisia, is reportedly threatening to recall its ambassador to Syria and end its diplomatic recognition of Syria altogether. Turkey, which has been sheltering some leaders of the Syrian protesters, is also planning more assertive actions to support the anti-Assad movement.

Both Russia and China are gambling, apparently, that Assad can suppress the violence quickly or, in Russia’s case, that its own announced unilateral diplomacy can bear fruit. Neither hope seems especially realistic at the moment. The two nations’ policies also stand in sharp contrast with those of Western governments and other democracies, which have shown a willingness to accept outcomes of the Arab Spring, even when they include an increase in Islamist political influence in newly self-determining nations such as Egypt.

International opinion has weight, and if the violence continues, China and Russia will have to rebalance their interests. Even if there is a massive and bloody crackdown by Assad that quells the unrest, the seeds of further unrest have already been sown. Our globalized world is increasingly hostile to tyranny, and we can only hope that, out of the blood and the rubble, the words in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be reaffirmed: “[I]t is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”


*The author is a distinguished professor at Korea University and president of the World Federation of United Nations Associations.

by Park Soo-gil

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