R2P After Syria

To Save the Doctrine, Forget Regime Change

Courtesy Reuters

In our last Foreign Affairs article (“Humanitarian Intervention Comes of Age,” November/December 2011), we noted that armed conflicts have generally become shorter, less intense, and more localized than they were in the past. As the Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden has documented, the number of battle-related deaths worldwide has been lower in each of the past ten years than in any in any previous year since the 1950s. (2012 data have not been released, but are expected to maintain the pattern.) Such improvements are partially thanks to the development of international norms about violence, including the UN-approved doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P), which holds that the international community is prepared to take action to protect civilians -- by force, if necessary -- when national governments fail to do so. 

The international community has also developed better tools for managing and preventing conflicts. Peace agreements are more effective and less likely to break down. Transitional justice institutions, including the International Criminal Court, the ad hoc tribunals on Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, and a broad range of domestic tribunals, have done a better job of championing human rights than ever before. And, finally, as demonstrated in Libya, in 2011, military intervention has at times prevented civilian deaths.

Every rule, however, has an exception. In this case, it is the bloody, sectarian civil war in Syria, which shows no sign of abating. In the two years since the conflict began, an estimated 70,000 people have died, and more than three million have been displaced from their homes. Each side enjoys the backing of outside powers, and the UN Security Council has failed to pass meaningful resolutions laying out a blueprint for ending the conflict.

In many ways, the international community’s inability to stop the escalating violence in Syria is reminiscent of the deadlock and vacillation over intervening in Bosnia in the 1990s. In that case, nearly 100,000 people died before an effective international response helped end the conflict, in 1995. Given international disagreement over Syria,

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