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Somewhere Between Civil War and Regime Transition: The Responsibility to Protect Response to Libya and Syria

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Summary:The responsibility to protect doctrine has been central in the discussion of how to deal with the Arab spring revolts that gave rise to civil wars in Libya and Syria. After exploring the roots of this doctrine in the just war concepts and examining previous applications, the article turns to the cases of Libya and Syria. In both cases, the measures of extreme repression taken by the elites in power against their own populations were not tolerated by the international community. In Libya, with the help of an UN-authorised NATO intervention, the Qadhafi authoritarian regime ended and the  former rebel forces are now leading the transitional process. In Syria, the paralysis of the Security Council presents significant challenges for the responsibility to protect doctrine.


The end of an authoritarian regime after more than forty years of dictatorial rule, in less than nine months of civil war is a rare object of study. The possible end of another authoritarian regime after more than forty years of hereditary dictatorship following one year of civil war is even more unusual. The first happened in Libya, the second is happening in Syria and both have to be understood in the context of the 2011 Arab spring revolts that resulted in the regime transition in Tunisia and in Egypt.

If the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have led to the transition away from an authoritarian regime (without the direct action of foreign states), the struggle for power in Libya drew Security Council attention and action mainly because its authoritarian leader was averse to negotiating a transitional process.  Qadhafi was not only unwilling to protect civil citizens from conflict, but also prepared to use criminal violence upon his own people.

The atrocities committed in the Libyan civil war provoked a United Nations-sanctioned international intervention, carried out by NATO on the grounds of the responsibility to protect doctrine in accordance with resolution S/1973 (2011). This intervention played a key role in terminating the civil war, with robust air support and limited, covert ground assistance enabling the rebel forces to topple the regime, culminating in the death of Muammar Qadhafi.  This began the transitional process led by the former rebel forces.

Atrocities of the same nature have been committed by the Syrian elites on their own population over the past year.  These have worsened in the recent months, however the decision for a similar intervention in Syria by the Security Council is not in sight, not only because Russia and China oppose it, but also because the Syrian regime has remained far more intact than the Libyan one.  There were far more defections, and much higher-level ones, in the first weeks of instability in Libya than there have been in over a year of the conflict in Syria.

The decision for a military intervention in Libya was taken little more than one month after the beginning of the civil war, but a decision to prevent the crimes against humanity that are being committed by the Syrian leaders will have to overcome the Russian and Chinese veto in the Security Council or it will have to be carried out by another actor (e.g., NATO) without a United Nations mandate.  It is difficult to predict the culminating point that may precipitate such an action, however it is likely to come when the spin-off effects (i.e., refugee flows or destabilizing infighting) become too much for neighbors to bear, when atrocities reach a level where international opinion turns decisively for an intervention, or when the regime begins to splinter to the degree that decisive results appear possible with minimal risk.

The concept of international intervention carries with it the possibility of having to go to war to have peace. In this sense, preventing genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes of war and against humanity has become an imperative to the United Nations, based on the responsibility to protect doctrine.  This paper argues that the theoretical foundations that underpin the international interventions of the United Nations — i.e., the responsibility to protect — are directly connected with the historical evolution of the just war theory. First, the paper will demonstrate how the responsibility to protect concept arose from just war doctrine.  Secondly, it will outline the empirical context that gave rise to the responsibility to protect and how it evolved institutionally since 2001. Finally, it will be shown how the responsibility to protect was applied to the Libya situation and how the absence of a Security Council resolution on Syria reinforces the United Nations’ structural deficiencies.

Just Wars and International Interventions

The concept of just war has its roots in Christian thought developed by Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century. The distinction between just and unjust wars is made in the light of certain assumptions grounded in Christian moral imperatives.  In The City of God, Augustine reflects that “the inequity of the adverse party requires the wise men to undertake a just war.”[1]  In such cases, the harm caused by others requires the just to take up war to halt the greater evil.  Under these circumstances, empirical verification of the justifiable reasons is needed, Augustine argues.  Once these reasons are established, the necessity of war as a means to achieve peace is defensible.

The pioneering idea of Augustine was developed by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. In his work Summa Theologica, Aquinas systematizes that a just war requires, a priori, the existence of three conditions: first, only “the authority of the sovereign” is legitimate to declare war; secondly, it demands a “just cause” in the sense that “those who are attacked should be attacked because they deserve it in response to a fault committed;” and, lastly, to initiate and to conduct a war “the belligerents should have a rightful intent.”[2] Thus, the thought of Aquinas systematized the Augustinian Christian doctrine of just war, formulating the necessary conditions for the legitimacy of war.

Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez, natural law authors of the sixteenth and seventeenth respectively, strongly marked by the heritage of the thought of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, would formalize the just war Christian doctrine. Hugo Grotius would later take it into account in his major work De Juri Belli ac Pacis, in which the Dutch jurist systematizes the idea of the Law of War and the Law of Peace[3]. Later, in the twentieth century, Michael Walzer[4] (1977) and John Rawls[5] (1993) would revisit the founding ideas of just war theory[6] and apply them to the Vietnam War and others that followed, such as Kosovo in 1999.[7]

Today, it is acknowledged that there are legal limitations on how states make war — jus in bello — empirically visible in the codification of humanitarian war, a premise underlying the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (1863) and the law of war following the Hague Conferences (1899/1907).[8] Initially conducted only by non-governmental organizations, humanitarian activities in time of war were codified in International Law with the First Geneva Convention (1864), but only with the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations system,[9] through the four Geneva Conventions of 1949,[10] was the right to humanitarian assistance in times of war instituted. Apart from the strictly humanitarian aspect, the United Nations missions also cover other actions. In a broader sense, international intervention can be understand as the “external actions that influence the internal affairs of a sovereign state”[11] and could range from mere speech to a military invasion. 

Despite the limitations and constraints inherent to the dilemma[12] of international interventions, it is possible to recognise two specific periods. In the post-World War II period, the central feature in the first generation operations of traditional peacekeeping was the display of force by the occupying powers whose legitimacy came from the military establishment on the ground. The second period of operations began in the 1980s.  These saw a more demanding peacekeeping process that utilized additional efforts to support institutional structures in post conflict scenarios, but were still essentially of military nature.

The 1988 General Assembly resolution on “Humanitarian Assistance to Victims of Natural Disasters”[13] was the first to allow an international intervention without the consent of the state.  It created the legal precedent for the Security Council to approve subsequent missions in Iraqi Kurdistan (1991) and Somalia (1992) — both without prior permission by the state. [14]

However, it would be in the 1990s[15] that two distinct efforts sought to remake the doctrine of the United Nations on international interventions. First, the “Agenda for Peace”[16] under the initiative of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992 designed the overall United Nations doctrine concerning peace operations. Second, Kofi Annan introduced the ‘Brahimi Report,’[17] which was intended as an evolution of the “Agenda for Peace” and tried to address the constraints of previous peace operations in the confrontation with the new challenges posed by the end of the Cold War.[18]


The Responsibility to Protect: Creation and Evolution

According Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahoun, even with the progress on the international interventions front,[19] the international community was criticised when it decided to intervene, as in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, and when it did not intervene as in Rwanda.[20]  It was against this background that Kofi Annan argued, in September 1999, in the defence of the individual sovereignty over state sovereignty.  He asked, ‘if humanitarian intervention is an unacceptable attack on sovereignty, how can we respond to cases as Rwanda or Srebrenica?’[21] In this sense, with the recovery of Francis Deng’s 1996 “sovereignty as responsibility” concept, it would be possible to abrogate the categorical imperative of traditional sovereignty, allowing the international community to intervene when the state fails in its responsibility to protect its people against genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes of war and against humanity.

In response to the Secretary-General’s call, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was established in September 2000 and presented its report, The Responsibility to Protect, in December 2001. As a result, it was stipulated, “state sovereignty implies responsibility...for the protection of the people.” [22]  Furthermore, if the states “did not want or were unable” to deal with critical humanitarian crises, “the principle of non-intervention will give rise to international responsibility to protect.”[23] Under these circumstances, the responsibility to protect concept present in the 2001 ICISS report stipulated that the international community would have the responsibility to prevent,[24] the responsibility to react,[25] and the responsibility to rebuild.[26]  The prevention instruments named in the ICISS report consist of political/diplomatic measures (promotion of good governance and threat of political sanctions),[27] economic/social measures (aid conditionality and threat of economic sanctions),[28] constitutional/legal measures (promotion of rule of law and threat of international criminal prosecution),[29] and security sector measures (security sector reform and threat of arms embargo).[30] Although the responsibility to protect doctrine does not directly imply a military intervention, this option is also contemplated as the ultimate reaction mechanism after the previous use of other instruments.[31]  Finally, the ICISS report also contemplated the responsibility to rebuild that would consider post-intervention missions and even direct administration under United Nations authority[32] with the final aim of achieving security, good governance, justice/reconciliation, and economic/social development.[33]

The criteria of legitimacy are critical for the use of force within the responsibility to protect doctrine. First, there has to exist a ‘just cause threshold’[34] such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, or crimes of war and against humanity. Second, the call to use the responsibility-to-react instruments should comply with the precautionary principles present in the ICISS report including a “right intention” or a proper purpose (only to halt or avert the threat in question, as a “last resort,” through the use of ‘proportional means’ to the threat and only when there is a ‘reasonable prospect’ of a successful mission (balance of consequences)).[35] Finally, the military intervention should only be called by the ‘right authority,’[36] which rests upon the decision of the Security Council members.

The concepts and the instruments presented in the 2001 ICISS report would later be stressed by the report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility”[37] and by Kofi Annan’s report “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All.”[38] Surprisingly, the African Union[39] accepted the responsibility to protect doctrine months before the United Nations, although the most probable targets of responsibility to protect doctrine are African and Asian states.

In 2005, the General Assembly approved the concept presented in the ICISS report, which established the responsibility to protect doctrine, and would emphasize its central goal in two paragraphs of the World Summit outcome document. In the first paragraph, all States present in the 2005 General Assembly agreed that “each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity [and that] this responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement.”[40] In the second paragraph, it was also agreed between the states that “the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity [whenever] national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.”[41]

After the general consensus gathered in the 2005 Word Summit, the responsibility to protect concept established itself as the fundamental doctrine for international interventions, but its institutionalization as a norm applied to concrete situations would still required the work of the Secretary-General, first with Kofi Annan and since 2007 with Ban Ki-Moon. In this perspective, in 2009 the Secretary-General presented a report to the General Assembly[42] outlining a three-pillar strategy for the implementation of the responsibility to protect doctrine[43] including “the protection responsibilities of the State...from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity;” “international assistance and assist states in meeting those obligations” and “the responsibility of member States to respond collectively in a timely and decisive manner when a State is manifestly failing to provide such protection.”[44] In the following years, several other reports[45] have been presented to the General Assembly in order to continue the discussion about the institutionalization of the doctrine into a norm approved by the Security Council. Despite these efforts, the responsibility to protect as a norm instituted in the practice of States and even in the Security Council’s response to the critical humanitarian crises was still a mirage.[46]

 To bridge this gap between the existence of the norm and its effective implementation, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect[47] was created in 2008, as well as the International Coalition for R2P[48] in 2009. Both organizations were created outside the United Nations’ structure. Both work to gather the expertise of several other western and non-western non-governmental organizations[49] in a network to identify, to prevent, and to alert to crises. The first receives governmental funds[50] and the second does not, but both aim to promote the institutionalization of responsibility to protect as a norm.

Since international interventions based on the responsibility to protect do not require a prior invitation or acceptance of the State, they can be perceived as an extension of the humanitarian right to intervene, a principle which had its institutional precedent in a General Assembly resolution, from the end of the 1980s, allowing the duty of intervention — without the State’s permission — on the grounds of “humanitarian assistance to victims of natural disasters.”[51]  The main difference is that the responsibility to protect lays down the supreme responsibility first to the sovereign state and only after to the international community, which is also the main reason why the doctrine was approved on the 2005 World Summit and why it was so consensually embraced by most of the African and Asian States.[52]

The responsibility to protect: before and after Libya

Before any specific case emerged, the responsibility to protect as a norm applied in a United Nations’ resolution had its unique appearance in a Security Council resolution S/1674 (2006) on the protection of civilians in armed conflictAlthough it was not directly applied to any specific crisis, it clearly reaffirmed “the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit outcome document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”[53]

First, it is necessary to make a distinction between the situations that are responsibility to protect cases and the ones that are not. Second, it is necessary to distinguish the responsibility to protect cases that had an international response based on the doctrine with a Security Council resolution from the cases that did not. Third, it is also necessary to discriminate between the different responsibility to protect reactions: prevent or react and threat of actions or actions.

In terms of the distinction between the situations that are responsibility to protect cases and the ones that are not, it would be easily demonstrable that the 2003 Iraq invasion by the USA and the 2008 Georgia invasion by Russia are not responsibility to protect situations. If in Iraq a “protective intervention would have been an acceptable option in the late 1980s,”[54] in 2003 it was only an excuse for invading. In the Georgian crisis, if the Russian aim was really only “to protect its own nationals, as claimed, the appropriate principle was self-defense.” [55]

The crisis in Darfur — which is obviously a responsibility to protect situation —elicited the first references to the doctrine through Security Council resolutions[56] and Human Rights Council reports,[57] but only through invoking the text of the 2005 World Summit outcome and the previous resolution S/1674 (2006) on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and not directly stating in the text of the resolution that Sudan government had the primary responsibility for the protection of its people.

Crises like Burma/Myanmar, the deficient response after Nargis cyclone and the violence that spread after the elections in Kenya[58] did not have a direct response based on a Security Council resolution stating the responsibility to protect norm. Both situations were responsibility to protect cases, because heads of state/governments were failing in protecting their populations and were unwilling to receive international support to help them fulfilling their responsibility.  Other critical situations, such as the Sri Lankan[59] government’s military actions to defeat the Tamil Tigers between January and May 2009, the massacres in Nigeria on 7 March 2010, and the spread of violence in Kyrgyzstan on June 2010, were also cases of responsibility to protect that did not have any Security Council response based on the doctrine. The first specific application of the responsibility to protect norm came in response to the politico-military crisis in Guinea-Bissau during 2010. Through resolution S/1949 (2010), the Security Council directly stated, “the Government of Guinea-Bissau bears the primary responsibility for…the protection of its civilian population.”[60]

Although the doctrine was previously applied to the Guinea-Bissau crisis in 2010, it would be in the Arab spring context and the subsequent Libyan civil war[61] that the responsibility to protect would have a more visible application, through the establishing of a no fly zone in Libya — one of the more severe measures contemplated in the responsibility to react strategies. First, with the resolution S/1970 (2011), approved on 26 February, the Security Council invoked “the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population,” considered the actions undertaken by the Libyan regime as a “crime against humanity,” and threatened Libya’s political and military elite with a number of measures including ICC prosecution, arms embargos, travel bans, and asset freezes.[62]  Second, with Resolution 1973, approved on 17 March, the Security Council once again reiterated “the responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population” and decided to authorize member states “to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” A no-fly zone was established.[63]

The support of the League of Arab States, the African Union, and the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference was crucial to muster the political will of the Security Council on resolutions S/1970 (2011) and S/1973 (2011), which contributed to the regional acceptance of the military intervention by NATO and the imposition of the no-fly zone. However, nothing in resolution S/1973 (2011) authorised member States to “act nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements” to help the rebel forces with arms or through the surgical bombing of military buildings or residences from the Qadhafi clan. If that had been the case, surely resolution S/1973 (2011) would not have had support from China and Russia, as well as from the League of Arab States, the African Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Nevertheless, that was what happened just a few weeks after the approval of resolution S/1973 (2011), which only consented to establishing a no-fly zone. Not only were China, Russia and regional Arab/African organisations condemning NATO operations in Libya, but Gareth Evans—one of the responsibility to protect founding fathers—stated that NATO was stretching the Security Council mandate on Libya “to the absolute limit.”[64] Though it can be argued that the extension of the Security Council mandate by NATO was a way to guarantee the protection of the Libyan people through the removal of its central threat in terms of the Qadhafi regime, the reality is that NATO’s interpretation of resolution S/1973 (2011) was stretched to meanings that were not on the document approved by the Security Council members.

After NATO’s intervention in Libya, is the responsibility to protect doctrine still relevant for the future? This was the main concern of the responsibility to protect defenders, once NATO operations in Libya were clearly aligned with regime change rather than with the responsibility to protect populations.  The two Security Council resolutions on Libya were not the first to be adopted on the grounds of the responsibility to protect doctrine, nor were they to be the last.  Only thirteen days after Resolution S/1973 (2011), another one was adopted on the Côte d’Ivoire situation reaffirming the “primary responsibility of each state to protect civilians” and authorising UNOCI “to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat.”[65] A few months later, while NATO aircraft bombed the positions of Qadhafi and helped the rebel forces, three Security Council resolutions were adopted on Sudan and another on the Yemen crisis, both on the grounds of the responsibility to protect, authorising UNISFA, “without prejudice to the responsibilities of the relevant authorities, to protect civilians in the Abyei Area [Sudan] under imminent threat”[66] and invoking “the Yemeni Government’s primary responsibility to protect its population.”[67]

The extension of the United Nations mandate by NATO in Libya did not destroy the responsibility to protect doctrine but it is a factor slowing an international response to the present crisis in Syria.   The ripple of the Arab spring triggered a revolt against the authoritarian ruling elite there. After peaceful demonstrations and more aggressive revolts,[68] the country is now in a state of civil war.[69]  The conflict has caused more than 14,000 deaths.[70]  The Arab League has been an involved actor since the worsening of the Syrian crisis, through the approval of historic sanctions against the Assad regime, which included the expulsion of Syria from the organisation.  An observer mission[71] to the Syrian territory was not able to minimise the effects of the Assad regime towards its own people even while the Arab observers were in Syrian territory.[72]

Although the United Nations’ structure through its different bodies and commissions has expressed concern over the Syrian crisis since August 2011, mainly with the Human Rights Council report,[73] the Security Council presidential statements[74] and through a General Assembly resolution,[75] the reality is that it did not manage to rise above an expected outcome: Russian and Chinese veto on a timely and decisive Security Council resolution. The last attempt, on 3 February 2012, had the same conclusion and only reinforced the Security Council’s state of paralysis, mainly because the draft resolution directly called “for an inclusive Syrian-led political process conducted in an environment free from violence, fear, intimidation and extremism, and aimed at effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of Syrian people.”[76]

One can argue that the previous linkage between the implementation of the responsibility to protect doctrine and the subsequent regime change in Libya that is one of the main reasons why Russia and China are vetoing any Security Council resolution with the specific aim of changing the ruling elites in Damascus. One can also argue that Russia and China[77] are afraid of the shadow of the future,[78] in that a decisive response by the Security Council to Syrian repressive measures against its own population could be a precedent used in the future against their own authoritarian regimes.[79]  However, the Syrian situation underlines the Security Council’s limitations in intervening in a timely and decisive manner, even when the most heinous crimes against humanity are being committed under the eyes of the international community.[80]

The Syrian government is killing its own people.[81] This is an undeniable fact for the Syrian people, the Syrian government, Syrian neighbours including friends and enemies, the world public opinion, the Arab League members, and the international community which is part of the United Nations’ structure. While the Syrian people go on being killed by its own rulers, the Security Council is once again paralysed by its own (dys)functional structure and the institutional mechanism that should contribute to overcome this paralysis.  The responsibility to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes of war and against humanity is not sufficient to prevent the Russian and Chinese vetoes on a decisive and timely response.

Some people are arguing that if even the responsibility to protect is not enough to protect Syrian people, then some other response must be found outside the Security Council’s structure.[82] It would not be the first time that a coalition of States acting nationally or through regional institutions would take the initiative due to the Security Council deadlock. The Kosovo crisis in the 1990s had a similar context. While an authoritarian dictator with a record of genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes of war and against humanity was giving signs of repeating these crimes towards his own population and was unwilling to negotiate, the Security Council was paralysed by the Russian and Chinese vetoes.  As a result, NATO took the lead with a military intervention on March 1999.[83]

Intervention without a Security Council resolution is contrary to the stipulations of the responsibility to protect doctrine. Such a move should not be taken, since it could also backfire in the future in the context of other necessary interventions. While the Security Council’s paralysis may be used in an attempt to legitimize further actions outside the United Nations structure, the fact is that “in a absence of a credible self-defence argument,” the Security Council is “the only source of legal authority for non-consensual military interventions.”[84]

After the Arab League’s sanctions,[85] the insufficiency of its observer mission, and the Security Council paralysis, Arab/Islamic organisations surely need to increase their role in the Syrian situation. While some argue that a military intervention would be catastrophic[86] in the sense that it would bring more harm than good to the Syrian people, others argue that a military intervention with a no-fly zone[87] framework should be conducted immediately.  Definitely, in the Syrian case, other in-between measures were considered first – such as the Kofi Annan United Nations-Arab League plan - and all have failed to date in diminishing the conflict in Syria, reinforcing the call for a military international intervention. In any case, the existence of an organised opposition,[88] formed by the majority of the Syrian political parties in opposition to the Assad regime should be recognised internationally and treated as legitimate partners for the future of Syria—with or without Assad.

Final remarks

As highlighted above, events in the 1990s gave rise to the responsibility to protect norm, but the founding ideas of this United Nations’ doctrine were put forth centuries earlier by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas in the form of the just war theory. In examining the evolution of the just war concept it was possible to trace the theoretical basis underlying the United Nations’ international interventions. After revisiting the Christian doctrine of just war, we can systematize four essential conditions, a priori, to wage a just war:  (1) the war must be declared by a legitimate authority, (2) there must be a just cause to start a war, (3) the war option should be a last resort to repair an injustice, and (4) a just cause can only be defended by means proportionate to the threat.  In turn, these principles can be more specifically translated into preconditions for a United Nations’ military intervention:  (1) the existence of a just cause, such as large-scale ethnic cleansing; (2) the inclusion of preventive principles, such as fair intentions to intervene with proportional means to the threat always in a last resort and with reasonable chance of success; (3) the recognition that the legitimate authority to decide rests with the Security Council; and (4) the existence of operating principles of intervention that focus on clear and unambiguous mandates.

In comparing these lists, we can see the direct association of responsibility to protect with just war.  Stemming from this observation, we can conclude that the just war theory, in its historical and contemporary design, is not a pacifist doctrine but a theory that legitimates war in defence of peace, but only when certain conditions are verified, namely genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes of war and against humanity.

The responsibility to protect was able to survive the stigma of regime change through the extension of the United Nations mandate by NATO’s intervention in Libya, but it will hardly resist the total inaction of the Security Council while the Syrians are being killed by their own leaders and with those images being transmitted not through television cameras but via YouYube, Facebook and Twitter. Even if we accept the various geopolitical differences between Syria and Libya, the nature of the crimes against humanity that were committed by the Qadhafi regime is similar to that of the ones that are being committed by the Assad regime against its own people.

Libya is not Syria. It is clear that a military intervention in Libya with the support the Arab and Islamic organisations along with most of its neighbours that contributed to the Russian and Chinese consent in the Security Council is significantly different from the complexities of intervening militarily in Syria. The logic of regional alliances as well as the nature of neighbouring regimes would easily turn a military intervention to a more complex regional conflict, and that is why not only the Russian and Chinese consent is important, but also its regional acceptance is crucial. If the military reaction to the Libyan crisis gave responsibility to protect a bad name in terms of “regime change,” surely the label given by the inaction in the Syrian situation will be unpronounceable.

[1] Saint Augustine, The City of God (Lisbon: Gulbenkian Editions 2008[V century]) Volume III, Book XVI a XXII, p. 1899.

[2] Saint Thomas Aquinas, ‘The Summa Theologica, Part II, Question 40’ (XIII century). Available in:

[3] Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, Richard Tuck (ed) (Indiana: Liberty Fund (2005[1625]).

[4] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars - a moral argument with historical illustrations (New York: Basic Books 2006[1977]). 

[5] John Rawls, ‘The Law of Peoples’, Critical Inquiry, no.20 (1993).

[6] George Weigel, ‘The Just-War tradition’, The National Review (12 December 2009).

[7] Sónia Rodrigues, ‘Just Wars and UN Interventions’, Third Global International Studies Conference (Porto: World International Studies Committee 17-20 August 2011)

[8] Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2001).

[9] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace (Lisbon: Editions 70, 1995[1795]).

[10] Geneva Conventions I, II, III, IV (International Committee of the Red Cross website) 12 August 1949).

[11] Joseph Nye, Understanding International Conflicts (New York: Longman 2000) p.183-186.

[12] Richard Betts, ‘The Delusion of Impartial Intervention’, Foreign Affairs, volume 73, N.º 6 (1994).

[13] Resolution A/43/131 (1988) ‘Humanitarian assistance to victims of natural disasters and similar emergency situations’, 8 December, General Assembly (NY: UN).

[14] Empirically verifiable with the pioneering international intervention in Iraqi Kurdistan (1991) and Somalia (1992), carried out without the consent of the respective States. Resolution S/688 (1991) ‘Iraq’, 5 April, Security Council (NY: UN); Resolution S/733 (1992) ‘Somalia’, 23 January, Security Council (NY: UN).

[15] Coral Bell, ‘Normative shift’, The National Interest (22 December 2002); Spyros Economides, Mats Berdal (eds), United Nations Interventionism, 1991-2004 (New York: Cambridge University Press 2007).

[16] Boutros Boutros-Ghali, ‘An Agenda for Peace - Preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peace-keeping’, Resolution A/47/277-S/24111 (1992) 17 June, Security Council/General Assembly (NY: UN). 

[17] Lakhdar Brahimi, ‘Report of The Panel on United Nations Peace Operations’, Resolution S/809 (2000), 21 August, Security Council (NY: UN).

[18] Robert Axelrod, Robert Keohane, ‘Achieving Cooperation Under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions’ in David Baldwin (ed) Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate. (New York: Columbia University Press 1993); John Mearsheimer, ‘The False Promise of International Institutions’, International Security, nº 3, volume 19 (1994/1995).

[19] Boutros-Ghali (note 18); Brahimi (note 19).

[20] Gareth Evans, Mohamed Sahoun, ‘Foreward’, The Responsibility to Protect - Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Canada: International Development Research Centre 2001) p. VII.

[21] Kofi Annan in R2P (note 20) p. VII.

[22] R2P (note 20) p. VIII.

[23] R2P (note 20) p. VIII.

[24] R2P (note 20) p.19-27.

[25] R2P (note 20) p. 29-38.

[26] R2P (note 20) p.39-46.

[27] R2P (note 20) p.23-27; Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect – ending mass atrocity crimes once and for all (Washington: Brookings Institution 2008) p.88-90.

[28] R2P (note 20) p.23-27; Evans (note 27) p.91-95.

[29] R2P (note 20) p.23-27; Evans (note 27) p.95-100.

[30] R2P (note 20) p.23-27; Evans (note 27) p.100-104.

[31] R2P (note 20) p.29-31; Evans (note 27) p.120-127.

[32] R2P (note 20) p.39-45; Roland Paris, At War's End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004).

[33] Evans (note 28) p.148-174; Paris (note 32).

[34] R2P (note 20) p.32-35; Evans (note 27) p.139-143.

[35] R2P (note 20) p.35-37; Evans (note 27) p.143-146.

[36] R2P (note 20) p.47-55; Evans (note 27) p.146-147; James Pattison, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility To Protect: Who Should Intervene? (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010); Anne Orford, International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011).

[37] ‘A more secure world: our shared responsibility’, Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (NY: UN 2004).

[38] Resolution A/59/2005 (2005) ‘In larger freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all’, Report of the Secretary-General, 21 March, General Assembly (NY: UN 2005)

[39] ‘The Ezulwini Consensus’, 7- 8 March, The Common African Position On The Proposed Reform Of The United Nations (Addis Ababa: African Union 2005)

[40] 2005 World Summit Outcome’, 15 September, General Assembly (NY: UN 2005), paragraph 138.

[41] ‘2005 World Summit Outcome’ paragraph 139.

[42] Resolution A/63/308 (2009) ‘The responsibility to protect’, 7 October, General-Assembly (NY: UN 2009)

[43] Resolution A/63/677 (2009) ‘Implementing the responsibility to protect’, Report of the Secretary-General, 12 January, General-Assembly (NY: UN 2009).

[44] (note 47)

[45] Resolution A/64/864 (2010) ‘Early warning, assessment and the responsibility to protect’, Report of the Secretary-General, 14 July, General-Assembly (NY, UN 2010); Information note, President of the General Assembly (2011) ‘Informal Interactive Dialogue on The Role of Regional and Sub‐regional Arrangements in Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’, 12 July, Report of the Secretary-General (NY: UN 2011)

[46] Madelaine Albright, ‘The end of intervention’, New York Times (11 June 2009); Ramesh Thakur, ‘Next word on intervention’, The Japan Times (Tokyo: 31 July 2009).

[47] Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect:

[48] International Coalition for RtoP:

[49] It has the help from more than 30 NGOs worldwide. In International Coalition for RtoP website.

[50] Besides the governmental funds from 11 countries, it also receives funds from Open Society Institute and the MacArthur Foundation. Institutionally. In Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect website.

[51] Resolution A/43/131 (1988) (note 15). This specific General-Assembly resolution allowed the later approval of the resolutions S/688 (1991) and S/733 (1992) about Iraq and Somalia, respectively.

[52] Ramush Thakur, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the North-South divide’ in The Responsibility to Protect – norms, laws and the use of force in international politics (Londres: Routledge 2011) p.144-160;

Adam Branch, ‘The irresponsibility of the responsibility to protect in Africa’ in Philip Cunliffe (ed), Critical perspectives on the Responsibility to Protect – interrogating theory and practice (London: Routledge 2011) p. 103-124; Mahmood Mamdani, ‘Responsibility to protect or right to punish’ in Philip Cunliffe (ed) (note 57) p. 125-139.

[53] Resolution S/1674 (2006) ‘Protection of civilians in armed conflict’, 28 April, Security Council (NY: UN)

[54] Thakur, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the North-South divide’ (note 57) p.153.

[55] Gareth Evens, ‘The responsibility to protect: holding the line’, Open Democracy (London: 5 October 2008); Thakur, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the North-South divide’ (57) p.154.

[56] Resolution S/1706 (2006) ‘Sudan/Darfur’, 31 August, Security Council (NY, UN); Resolution S/1755 (2007) ‘Sudan/Darfur’, 30 April, Security Council (NY: UN); Resolution S/1769 (2007) ‘Sudan/Darfur’, 31 July, Security Council (NY: UN).

[57] A/HRC/4/80 ‘Implementation of General Assembly Resolution 60/251of 15 March 2006 Entitled Human Rights Council’ Report of the High-Level Mission on the situation of human rights in Darfur pursuant to Human Rights Council decision S-4/101, 7 March, Human Rights Council (NY: UN).

[58] Mary O’Connell, ‘Responsibility to peace: a critique of R2P’ in Philip Cunliffe (ed) (note 57) p. 71-83.

[59] Thakur, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the North-South divide’ (57) p.155-156.

[60] Resolution S/1949 (2010) ‘Guinea-Bissau’, 23 November, Security Council (NY: UN).

[61] See one possible definition of civil war in Michael Doyle, Nicholas Sambanis, Making war and building peace (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2006) p. 31.

[62] Resolution S/1970 (2011) ‘Libya’, 26 February, Security Council (NY: UN).

[63] Resolution S/1973 (2011) ‘Libya’, 17 March, Security Council (NY: UN).

[64] Gareth Evans, ‘NATO stretching UN Libya mandate: Evans’, Sidney Morning Herald (4 May 2011); AVAV, ‘R2P: Sovereignty and Intervention after Libya’, World Politics Review (USA: 28 June 2011).

[65] Resolution S/1975 (2011) ‘Côte d’Ivoire’, 30 March, Security Council (NY: UN).

[66] Resolution S/1990 (2011) ‘Sudan’, 27 June, Security Council (NY: UN); Resolution S/1996 (2011) ‘Sudan’, 8 July, Security Council (NY: UN); Resolution S/2003 (2011) ‘Sudan’, 29 July, Security Council (NY: UN).

[67] Resolution S/2014 (2011) ‘Yemen’, 21 October, Security Council (NY: UN).

[68] Javier Solana, ‘El veto a Syria y sus implicaciones geopolíticas’, El Pais (Madrid: 10 October 2011)

[69] Malcolm Rifkind, Shashank Joshi, ‘It’s time to support the opposition in the Syrian civil war’, Financial Times (London: 5 February 2012)

[70] “Syria Kills 12 as Revolt Toll Tops 14100,” Agence France Presse, (10 June 2012).

[71] Resolution 7442 (2011) ‘Full text of Arab League resolution against Syria’ [English translation], 27 November (Cairo: League of Arab States 2011)

[72] ‘Report of the Head of the League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria for the period from 24 December 2011 to 18 January 2012’ [English translation], 27 January (Cairo: League of Arab States 2012).

[73] A/HRC/S-17/2/Add.1 (2011) Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 23 November, Human Rights Council, General Assembly (NY: UN).

[74] S/PRST/2011/16 (2011) ‘Statement by the President of the Security Council on Syria’, 3 August, Security Council Presidency (NY: UN); S/PRST/2012/3(2012) “Security Council press statement on Damascus terrorist attack”, 6 January 2012, Security Council (NY: UN).

[75] A/RES/66/176 (2011) ‘Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic’, 19 December, General Assembly (NY: UN).

[76] Security Council members ‘Draft Resolution on Syria, 2 February 2012’, in Jayshree Bajoria, ‘Syria’s deepening crisis’ (Washington: Council on Foreign Relations 6 February 2012)

[77] Joshua Foust, ‘Syria and the pernicious consequences of our Libya intervention’, The Atlantic (Washington: 6 February 2012)

[78] Keohane (note 18) p. 87.

[79] B Raman, ‘Russian-Chinese nervousness influences their vote on Syria’, paper no. 4898 (New Delhi: South Asia Analysis Group, 5 February 2012) Axelrod, Keohane (note 18) Mearsheimer (note 18).

[80] James Traub, ‘Intervention in Syria is morally justified – and completely impractical’, The New Republic (Washington: 10 February 2012)

[81] Amnesty International, ‘Syria’, Annual Report 2011 (London: Amnesty International, 2012).

[82] ‘UN impasse over Syria boosts prospects of military intervention’, The National (Abu Dhabi: 10 February 2012).

[83] Evans (note 28) p.146-147; Tara Mccormack, ‘The responsibility to protect and the end of the Western century’ in Philip Cunliffe (ed) (note 57) p. 35-48.

[84] Evans (note 28) p.147.

[85] Ausama Monajed (ed), ‘Assessment of Syrian Energy Sanctions’ (London: Strategic Research & Communication Centre, 2011); Trita Parsi, Natasha Bahrami, ‘Sanctions don’t promote democratic change’, Boston Review (Boston: 6 February 2012)

[86] Anthony Cordesman, Aram Nerguizian, ‘Instability In Syria: Assessing the Risks of Military Intervention’ (Washington: Centre for Stategic and International Studies,  13 December 2011)

[87] Michael Weiss, ‘Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are already intervening in Syria. Why aren’t we?’, Daily Telegraph (London, 6 February 2012).

[88] Burhan Ghalioun, ‘Syria Opposition Leader Interview Transcript’, Wall Street Journal (Washington: 2 December 2011); Syrian National Council:; Rifkind, Joshi (note 78).


Categories: yemen - UNSC - UN - Syria - Sudan - r2p - Libya - Guinea-Bissau

About the Author(s)


Sónia Rodrigues is a Researcher at the Portuguese Institute for international Relations – New University of Lisbon and an Assistant Guest Professor in the Social and Human Sciences Faculty at New University of Lisbon.


Mike Few

Thu, 06/14/2012 - 8:43am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

To your last paragraph, yes, I think that sums it up nicely. However, my concern is that this is a case of mission creep gone bad where force becomes the ends rather than the means.

Bill C.

Thu, 06/14/2012 - 8:38am

In reply to by Mike Few

Mike F:

From the Henry Kissinger article you referenced below and in the section where he is discussing the Westphalian System:

"For the founders, the new concepts of national interest and balance of power amounted to a limitation, not an expansion, of the role of force; it substituted the preservation of equilibrium for forced conversion of populations."

Should we say that after the Cold War and with no great power rival standing in our way, we came to see that the Westphalian System no longer served our purposes, which now had less to do with "preservation of equilibrium" and more to do with making the most of this opportunity to consolidate potential gains. Thus and via such policies as we have now (still "engagement and enlargement" I would suggest), specifically allowing that force might once again be used to achieve "conversions" (in our case, in the political, economic and social systems sense)?

Mike Few

Thu, 06/14/2012 - 8:32am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

Perhaps. There are many folks arguing that appropriate mass (resources, troops) along with planning were the missing link in both Iraq and A'stan.

Some would argue that more military mass was needed to occupy after the invasions. Others would argue that the mass should come from Foggy Bottom and a "government in a box."

I'm of the "Less is More" Camp- less drone strikes, less AID money, less COIN, less intervention. These things take time and patience, and self-determination cannot be outsourced.

Bill C.

Thu, 06/14/2012 - 7:39am

In reply to by Mike Few

Mike F:

The military's AAF would seem to only say that we should (1) be more realistic in understanding what these endeavors (the post-conflict modernization of states and societies along western lines and the incorporation of such states and societies into the global economy) will actually require and that we must (2) plan and resource such efforts better accordingly.


Mike Few

Wed, 06/13/2012 - 9:06am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

How does this path reconcile with the Military's recent After-Action Report?

"'For example,' the report noted, 'the planned end-state for Afghanistan was envisioned to be a strong central government despite no record of such a government in its history and lack of broad popular support for that system of governance.'"

At one time, "God-given" was a faith in the unknown and uncertainty. Today, are we replacing faith with certainty that the only answer is western political, economic and social world order?…

"Just cause" for war today, much as it was during the Cold War, was/is used to deal with those entities -- governments and/or population segments -- who would tend to deny their state and society -- and, therefore the world at-large -- their god-given right to a western political, economic and social world order and the benefits (peace and prosperity) that are to be derived therefrom.

Herein, one is both allowed and justified -- during the Cold War and again today -- to take down:

a. Population groups that attack/stand in way of governments that are moving in the right direction (toward adopting the western model) and

b. Governments that attack/stand in the way of populations groups who may be moving the right way.

Thus, R2P attempts to address this "right" to take down governments in the name of achieving a western world order in the present unique environment, to wit: where there is no existential/great power/great ideology threat that would, otherwise, help to justify "wars" to provide the world with their god-given right to the benefits of our way of life.

Mark Pyruz

Tue, 06/12/2012 - 10:53am

"If in Iraq a 'protective intervention would have been an acceptable option in the late 1980s," -ST

I'm unclear what exactly the author is referring to, here. During the late 80s, Iraq was at war with Iran. The United States was aiding Iraq during this conflict and became actively engaged as a belligerent in 1988, with the downing of an Iranian civilian airliner and the destruction of IRIN's convoy escort force.

Perhaps this is a typo? Or perhaps the author is referring to Iraq's massive tactical use of chemical weapons at this stage of the Iran-Iraq war? Hard to say, but there was no call from the "international community" (which usually refers to the West) at the time against Iraq. In fact, the U.S., France, the Gulf states and the USSR were actively supporting Iraq. This must be a typo.

Mike Few

Wed, 06/13/2012 - 7:29am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

You might be interested in Henry Kissinger's latest Op-Ed.

Syrian intervention risks upsetting global order…

"We cannot afford to be driven from expedient to expedient into undefined military involvement in a conflict taking on an increasingly sectarian character. In reacting to one human tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another. In the absence of a clearly articulated strategic concept, a world order that erodes borders and merges international and civil wars can never catch its breath. A sense of nuance is needed to give perspective to the proclamation of absolutes. This is a nonpartisan issue, and it should be treated in that manner in the national debate we are entering."

Bill C.

Tue, 06/12/2012 - 11:46pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

COL Jones: From your comment above:

"So we run about helping to kill populaces in one place, and taking down regimes in others."

Should we see some consistency here -- as regards our interests:

1. During the Cold war we would often:

a. Install and help pro-western governments kill their anti-western (communist-leaning) populaces and

b. Help pro-western populaces overthrow anti-western (communist-leaning) governments.

2. Today it is insufficient to simply be pro-western. Now one must be actively moving to transform the state and society along modern western lines. Thus today we:

a. Install and help pro-"westernizing" governments kill their anti-westernizing populaces and

b. Help potentially pro-westernizing populaces overthrow anti-westernizing governments.

(R2P to be understood within this latter context, to wit: as a means to help a potentially pro-westernizing populace overthrow its government; said government's crime being -- not that it is killing its own people [as you note, we really don't have a problem with that as long as it is done for our purposes] -- rather the government's crime is that it is not moving out quickly enough to westernize the state and society as we require.)

A possible distinction between yesterday (the Cold War) and today? Today, no existential threat which would justify these such extreme actions?

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 06/12/2012 - 7:57am

In reply to by gian gentile

It becomes a difficult thing for the US to stand up and actively oppose regimes we prefer to see gone in the killing of their own people, when we are so helpful in the killing of their own people for regimes we support, such as in Afghanistan and Yemen.

"Killing your own populace" is the essence of most COIN programs. Certainly governments must be prepared to take on this hard task in order to preserve a well-ordered society that responds to the rule of law and the express will of the majority. Too often, however, such goals are more cover story than reality for governments unwilling to listen to the reasonable concerns of large segments of their populace and who simply seek to suppress the problem so that they can continue on with business as usual.

The greater Middle East is a hot mess of such systems of governance and oppressed and restive populaces. We injected ourselves into the middle of this to secuure energy and transportation interests, and to contain the Soviets. With the Soviet threat gone we are now just one more in a long list of external powers seeking to shape things for our own interests by backing whatever party we think will best ensure that result. As these many populaces move to action to seek change we now find ourselves caught up in the middle. So we run about helping to kill populaces in one place, and taking down regimes in others. Like a crazy Dutch boy who does not know if he should plug the leaking dike, or tear it down, and doing a good bit of both.

I hope Assad can find a way to have a conversation with his popualce and move to a new, more durable stability. I equally hope that the US can evolve from such bi-polar advocacy to a more neutral approach that favors the uncertainty of natural stability we do not seek to control over the certainty of artifical stability crafted by our military. But you know what they say, "hope in one hand and..."

As to R2P? If there was a policy even more flawed than our historic one, that would be a serious contender.

gian gentile

Tue, 06/12/2012 - 6:35am

WRT to Syria the author states that the Syrian government is killing its people, a true statement in one measure. Although the larger truth is that Syria is mired in civil war, which government actions are a part of. A problem with many advocates of R2P is that they downplay and simplify (e.g., Slaughter et al)the complexities of intervention within given countries.

In a way R2Pers are like Coindinistas: the latter reduces complex civil wars (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan) down to a relatively simple problem of insurgent and counterinsurgent and the former as government killing its own people. It is a binary reductionist model that in the end causes people to think that these things are rather simple affairs of which foreign military forces can easily handle.