The Responsibility to Protect in the Syrian Situation

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 15
Words: 4020
Reading time:
17 min
Study level: College


The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) is declared by the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly as a new effective approach that was proposed in the 2000s in order to prevent the progress of mass atrocities globally. Referring to this strategy that includes a certain series of actions to take, it is possible to prevent and cease ethnic cleansing and genocides as well as mass killings of the civilians because these violations are often a result of internal conflicts. A series of humanitarian crises in the 1990s made the international community reconsider the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’ because this concept became associated with the active use of military forces, as it was in Kosovo; or in contrast, this approach became associated with the absence of any adequate humanitarian support, as it was in Rwanda. Therefore, in 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty presented the report in which the principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was clearly defined and described. Later, the conflict of 2003 in Darfur demonstrated that the proposed R2P concept and approaches to determining the responsibility of the international community to protect the rights of civilians should be adopted because of their appropriateness to address the problem of violating human rights. As a result, the doctrine of the R2P was adopted in 2005. Lewandowski states in his work that “responsibility to protect was developed to reach two goals: to prevent and stop core human rights violations and to establish a platform for such reaction by the principles of international law”.

However, the real test for the new doctrine was in 2011, when the international community could observe how the principles of the R2P were applied or not about the crises in Libya and Syria. It is important to pay attention to the fact that the military intervention in Libya provoked many questions in experts and the public, but such researchers as Bellamy, Garwood-Gowers, and Payandeh concluded that the realization of the principle of R2P was rather effective in the case of Libya. On the contrary, the strategy of non-intervention was selected in case of Syria. This approach also provoked a lot of questions for the further debates. The reason is that many proponents of the R2P discuss the doctrine as the alternative to the previous radical humanitarian intervention and see many approaches in resolving the Syrian conflict with references to the R2P. Furthermore, the supporters of more extreme measures also discuss the R2P as the effective tool to promote the intervention and achieve the stability for the society with the help of the force, as is stated in the article by Williams, Ulbrick and Worboys. From this perspective, the problem is in the fact that the responses of the international community, as well as different organizations to the Syrian crisis, were extremely diverse. When the humanitarian intervention was actively realized in Libya, the possibilities to follow this pattern in Syria were only “tested”, as is mentioned by such researchers as Nanda and Zifcak in their works.

As a result, now it is important to focus on the analysis of the Syrian situation in the context of the ‘responsibility to protect to state how the proposed doctrine can deal with the discussed crisis and how effective its measures can be to regulate the situations similar to that one that was observed in Syria in 2011. On the one hand, the situation in Syria demonstrated that the R2P approach cannot be equally implemented in different contexts, and the specific focus on the concrete situation is the key to its resolution. On the other hand, the international community’s military failure in Syria allows focusing on the detailed discussion of possible obstacles that are associated with the practical implementation of the doctrine in the critical contexts. As a consequence, the problem of the choice of effective measures to regulate the Syrian conflict remains unresolved. In this context, it is important to answer the question of whether the international community could appropriately deal with the conflict in Syria while adopting the R2P doctrine. Furthermore, it is also important to find the answer to the question of how to implement the principles of the doctrine in order to achieve success and address the conflict while directly protecting the civilians’ rights.

Research Statement

The purpose of this qualitative research on the effectiveness of implementing the R2P approach in the context of the Syrian situation is to find out how the R2P could be applied to the Syrian crisis, to determine paths to facilitate the R2P implementation, and to identify possible obstacles and prospects that are associated with the R2P development in the future. Therefore, the paper starts with addressing the shift observed in the international community’s debates from the notion of ‘humanitarian intervention’ to the notion of ‘responsibility to protect’ and continues with discussing the evolution of the R2P concept during the 2000s-2010s. The paper also provides information on the causes that could lead to the development of the Syrian conflict in the context of Arab Spring. The final part of the paper aims to determine the obstacles for implementing the R2P in Syria in contrast to the experience in Libya and to analyze the responses to the Syrian crisis in the context of the further perspectives for the facilitation of the R2P. To address the identified purpose, the research is based on the review of primary and secondary sources on the problem of the application of the R2P to the situation in Syria.

Introductory Chapter


Genocide and other mass atrocities were always discussed by the international society as the problems that needed to be resolved by the means of the whole global community in order to prevent the rise of these problems again in the future. Therefore, the idea of humanitarian intervention developed as a result of the authorities’ attempts to propose the most effective approaches in order to address a range of problems that could be discussed in the context of international law. Even though the concept of the humanitarian intervention satisfied the needs of the authorities because it pointed at the possibilities to use forces to address the conflict, there were several triggers in the 1990s that made the international community reconsider the approach to the proposed solution.

The humanitarian crises and tragedies in Rwanda in 1994 and in Kosovo in 1999 made the international community and authorities discuss the strategies to effectively respond to the observed violations of human rights. The sovereignty of states to resolve their domestic issues and the rights of the international community to intervene in the process became the matter for debates during the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s. As a result, the opinions of the experts were divided because the authorities supported rather different approaches to resolving the problematic situations in the international law context. Therefore, the idea of using the international intervention into the country for humanitarian purposes became discussed as a reasonable action to prevent humanitarian catastrophes by one group of experts and as a controversial approach leading to many negative consequences for civilians by the other group of experts. It was necessary to propose a solution that could satisfy the international community and that could contribute to completing the purpose of the authorities’ efforts in the context of humanitarian interventions.

Referring to the provided background, it is important to state that the purpose of this chapter is to state the definition of the ‘humanitarian intervention’ concept that was actively used in the 1990s and to present the definition of the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept that became actively used in the 2000s in order to replace the idea of the humanitarian intervention. In addition, this chapter provides a discussion of different types of responsibilities that were identified by the authors of the doctrine.

The Notion of Humanitarian Intervention

It is possible to state that the debates on the notion of humanitarian intervention and its practical application to different world contexts were the results of two humanitarian failures in Rwanda and Kosovo. Thus, the lack of an adequate response to the situation in Rwanda in 1994 provoked more debates on the reasonability and legitimacy of using the humanitarian intervention. According to Welsh, the international organizations focused on developing the idea of humanitarian intervention in order to “protect civilians in the future”. However, no real actions were taken in order to address the problems of the civilians and to stop the genocide with the help of adequate and timely measures. Furthermore, the need for discussing the idea of intervention was accentuated later, when “the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, designed to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, occurred without Security Council authorisation”. As a result of these crises, the international community’s uncertainty about the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions increased significantly, and the debates led to developing the idea of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) instead of the notion of humanitarian intervention. In order to understand the premises for such a shift in international law, it is necessary to discuss the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in detail.

It is important to start with the idea that the notion of ‘intervention’ is the basis for the R2P concept, and the notion of ‘humanitarian intervention’ evolved in order to address the changes in public needs. Therefore, more attention should be paid to discussing the notion of humanitarian intervention in detail. Following the definition proposed by Davis, it is possible to state that the humanitarian intervention is “the use of force by a state (or group of states) in another sovereign state’s territory to protect the host state’s citizens from gross human rights abuses, mass atrocities, crimes against humanity, or genocide”. From this point, the notion of humanitarian intervention differs significantly from the notion of the humanitarian assistance that is usually proposed by organizations similar to the Red Cross. Thus, is based on the necessity of using military forces to stabilize the situation in a state, the notion of the ‘humanitarian intervention’ includes the coercive element that provokes a lot of debates among the international community because the authorities’ opinions on the problem are different. The authorities can be discussed as divided into proponents of diplomatic options in order to state the idea of humanitarianism and promote the avoidance of using the arms and in supporters of using active military actions in cases when certain states cannot address the needs of their citizens appropriately.

In spite of the fact that the notion of the humanitarian intervention was discussed in the early 1990s as the unique measure to use because of its direct opposition to the idea of promoting the state’s sovereignty, this notion developed, and finally, the necessity of human interventions was adopted by the majority of the international community. The development of the notion also led to determining the conditions that needed to be followed to guarantee the effectiveness of the intervention. Thus, Weiss states that the “humanitarian intervention should be subject to four precautionary conditions: right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects of success”. In this context, the right intention means the clearly determined purpose for the intervention. The condition of the last resort means the absence of any other available means to regulate the problem. In addition, the condition of proportional means can be discussed as determined to regulate the actual use of military forces to resolve the problem and avoid mass victims. Finally, reasonable prospects of success are important in order to legitimize the intervention because it needs to lead to the successful resolution of the problem. From this point, the focus on humanitarian intervention means the necessity of reacting to “all crises consistently”.

In addition to opposing the military nature of the humanitarian intervention, the critics of the approach also refer to a range of unexpected results of the intervention. Thus, Nzelibe notes that the condition of reasonable prospects of success is often not addressed in reality. The reason is that “humanitarian interventions both influence and are influenced by the decisions of the victims and perpetrators of atrocities”. As a result, the actual intervention can lead to strengthening the parties that can cause more atrocities. Furthermore, the problem is also in interpreting the notion because the military actions that are usually discussed as the ‘humanitarian intervention’ cannot address the idea of ‘humanitarian’ directly. According to Pattison, if the intervention is military in its nature, it cannot be discussed as ‘humanitarian’ with references to the traditional understanding of this idea. Discussing the adopted notion of humanitarian intervention, Pattison determines several specific features that help to distinguish this course of action from the other anti-crisis measures used in the international law. Thus, the humanitarian intervention, as it is seen by the international community and authorities, is military in contrast to other diplomatic or economic measures. Furthermore, this type of intervention needs to be forcible when the actual assistance of such organizations as the Red Cross is often non-forcible. In addition, this intervention is always justifiable, it has a specific purpose, and it refers to the underlying reasons. Only when these conditions are met, it is possible to speak about the humanitarian intervention. However, the problem is in the fact that even if the criteria determined by Pattison are met, the authorities often cannot guarantee that the proposed military actions can lead to positive consequences and fewer victims in spite of the fact that this condition is the priority.

History and Definition of the Responsibility to Protect

In 2000, the Government of Canada established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), and one of the tasks was the necessity to address the problem associated with the NATO bombings in Kosovo in 1999. The main topic of the consultation and discussion sessions of the ICISS was the development of the idea of the international community’s responsibility to protect the civilians suffering from the threat of violations and possibly ethnic cleansing. The members of the ICISS had experience in different areas of knowledge and discussed different approaches to resolving identified conflicts with the help of diplomatic and military means. In December 2001, the ICISS proposed the report presenting the results and findings on the consultation and discussion sessions.

The ICISS Report included the detailed discussion and definition of the idea of ‘Responsibility to Protect’. R2P was formulated as the extension of the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’ that was assessed by the ICISS as ineffective with references to the crises in Rwanda and Kosovo. As a result, the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was defined as a tool to address mass atrocities and resolve conflicts in cases when the state cannot protect the rights of its citizens and when the international community needs to participate in protecting the humans’ interests.

In the Report, the ICISS formulated three measures important to start the discussion of the necessity of intervening. These conditions are “early warning”, “preventive toolbox”, and “political will”. Thus, to discuss the possibilities for the intervention and realization of the principle of R2P, it is necessary to evaluate the conditions associated with the situation and all the available resources before selecting the intervention. Furthermore, the authors also discussed all possible limitations for referring to the concept of R2P in order to prevent the escalation of military conflicts. As a result, the situations to discuss in the context of the R2P were limited to “large scale loss of life”, genocide, and “ethnic cleansing”. In addition, the ICISS Report included the reference to such a criterion as the “right authority” that was determined as responsible for the possible military intervention. In this context, the authors of the Report proposed such possible authorities as to the General Assembly, the Security Council, and specific Regional Organisations.

In addition, the criteria important for the humanitarian intervention were also discussed in the context of the R2P. The focus on the purpose and the “right intention” was emphasized as the priority to guarantee that the purpose of the intervention is not political, but humanitarian. The orientation to the needs of the civilians is discussed as the main factor in order to conclude about the legitimacy of selecting the military intervention. The idea of the ‘last resort’ was explained in terms of focusing on the necessity of reasonable grounds to state that only military intervention is the effective approach in the concrete case. Furthermore, the necessity of referring to the proportional means was also supported. Finally, the authors of the Report focused on ‘reasonable prospects’, and stated that the “military intervention is not justified if actual protection cannot be achieved or if the consequences of embarking upon the intervention are likely to be worse than if there is no action at all”. Thus, the contribution of the ICISS to the process of discussing the issue was in the fact that they changed the reference to the “right of intervention” and proposed the “responsibility to protect”. As a result, the focus was shifted from the military aspects to the protection of individuals’ rights of civilians. Thus, it was important to pay attention to the beneficiaries of the R2P and the concrete responsibilities of the international community, without concentrating on the aspect of the military actions. From this perspective, the authors of the ICISS Report chose to reformulate the idea of humanitarian intervention while concentrating on the R2P, and the main difference in relation to the notions is the focus on ‘protection’ in R2P, not ‘intervention’.

In 2005, Kofi Annan presented his report “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All” and added more thoughts on the idea of the R2P. As a response to Kofi Annan’s Report and to the ideas presented in the ICISS Report, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document and referred to the R2P in paragraphs 138 and 139 of the document. Thus, the UN General Assembly adopted the fact that each state is responsible for protecting citizens from mass atrocities. Hunt and Bellamy state that if there are situations when the state cannot respond to the needs of its citizens, the international community should demonstrate its responsibility to resolve the case and protect the human rights of the citizens.

The adoption of the R2P concept meant the development of further debates on the topic. Thus, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon chose to present the additional report in order to discuss more ways the protection of individuals from mass atrocities in 2009. Furthermore, in 2014, the new report on the support for the R2P was published. During this period, the opponents of the R2P concept began to develop the idea that the R2P was only the other name for humanitarian intervention. As a result, Luck notes that it was meaningless to expect positive changes in using interventions. On the contrary, the supporters of the R2P state that the procedure is focused not only on the coercive element, and non-military forms of prevention and post-conflict rebuilding are more connected with the main idea of the R2P. Thus, the changes in formulation and focuses of the interventions associated with the R2P led to discussing the specific responsibilities determined by the ICISS.

Responsibility to Prevent

The ‘responsibility to prevent’ is focused on the actions that are necessary to take in order to address the causes of the observed problem or conflict. If there are premises to predict that the crisis can develop in the future or the crisis can start as the reaction to certain changes in the country, it is important to propose a strategy according to which it is possible to regulate the critical situation. According to Nanda, “early warning mechanisms” work in this case. As a result, the direct causes of the internal opposition in the state can be addressed with references to this specific responsibility determined with the doctrine. From this point, the responsibility to prevent is associated with the variety of non-military actions that are oriented to respond to the interests of the civilians and avoid military intervention.

Responsibility to React

The ‘responsibility to react’ is one of the most controversial aspects of the proposed doctrine because such critics of this stage as Weiss and Thakur state that this responsibility is only the reformulation of the international community’s right to choose the military intervention to regulate the critical situation in the concrete state. The responsibility to react means the right to use force in order to achieve the expected results. In this case, Thakur states that the focus on the military actions can be predicted as the choice of the authorities. However, the authors of the ICISS Report noted that this responsibility includes the choice of appropriate response measures that are not limited only to coercive measures. Furthermore, military intervention can be proposed only in extreme situations when the other approaches are meaningless.

Responsibility to Rebuild

This responsibility is also directly oriented to protecting the rights of civilians who need the opportunity to receive complete assistance and support to recover after the use of the military forces. In this case, the organizers of the military intervention are responsible for the following reconstruction of the regions where the arms were used in order to provide the civilians with the necessary support and overcome the outcomes of the crisis. In spite of the fact that this option does not include the direct intervention of the international forces, it is assumed that the reconstruction can follow only the intervention. From this point, this responsibility is as controversial as the responsibility to react, as it is noted by such researchers as Follesdal, Blatter and Williams .


It is possible to state that the humanitarian interventions that were developing during the 1990s provided an example of the exceptional and rather radical military approach to regulating the conflict situation in the state the sovereignty of which was rather questioned. Thus, humanitarian interventions became the direct response to the necessity of addressing the internal conflict in states that could not guarantee the protection of their citizens’ rights. From this point, no actual ‘humanitarian’ intervention was proposed for addressing the conflict in Rwanda or Kosovo, for instance. The actions of the international community to respond to the crisis in Rwanda were not enough when actions of the NATO in Kosovo can be discussed as getting out of control, and the public could only focus on mass bombings instead of the resolution of the crisis. The global community needed a new effective doctrine or strategy in order to address the problems of genocide or mass killings of civilians in different states over the globe. In this context, the R2P doctrine was proposed as an alternative to the previously used humanitarian intervention. Thus, the focus on humanitarian intervention was only a temporary measure.

In spite of the fact that many researchers discuss the responsibility to protect as similar to the humanitarian intervention in its main principles, the proponents of the new doctrine accentuate the changes in the role of the civilians. Thus, the R2P doctrine guarantees the protection of the citizens’ rights and interests rather than the focus on the interveners’ rights. The developers of the R2P concept also proposed a range of criteria to assess the situations and to discuss whether it is reasonable to refer to the military intervention or other tools in each concrete case. Furthermore, the authors of the R2P doctrine also focused on dividing the responsibility to protect into several elements in order to determine separate steps for addressing crises and conflicts. It was also noted that if the responsibility to prevent is realized effectively, it is often possible to avoid further military intervention.

In this context, it is important to understand why such a developed and holistic approach to conflict resolution as the R2P was not effectively applied to the case of Syria. Thus, it is also necessary to state what factors could influence the international community’s decisions to intervene or not in Syria. From this point, it is also important to discuss the triggers of the Syrian crisis in the next chapter, while focusing on the aspects of Arab Spring and on the evolution of the crisis in Syria that provoked the authorities to assess possible actions to take.


Primary Sources

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), The Responsibility to Protect, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2001, p. 1, 2, 35-54.

Report of the United Nations Secretary-General, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, UN Doc. A/63/677, 2009, par. 4.

Report of the United Nations Secretary-General, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All, UN Doc. A/59/2005, par. 135.

UN General Assembly, World Summit Outcome (60th Session) Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly (2005), pars. 138-139.

UN Secretary-General Report: Fulfilling our collective responsibility: international assistance and the Responsibility to Protect 2014 (A/68/947), sec. 1-9.

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