Why Syria Necessitates the R2P Framework

On 20th December 2019, Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council Resolution that would have extended cross border humanitarian aid for a year to four million Syrians. It was Russia’s fourteenth and China’s eighth veto over the Syrian conflict. The present article would focus on the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (‘R2P’) and its consistent failure in the case of Syria. It is argued that geopolitical rivalries, which exist between the nations, have contributed to the international community’s failure to take action in response to the Syrian crisis — a region that calls for the urgent application of the R2P doctrine. 

Legal Framework

The R2P doctrine is a significant milestone in the study of international law and the use of force by States. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in the 2005 World Summit. It has three elements which are: first, States have a responsibility to protect their population from genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity; second, the international community has to ensure that States fulfill their responsibility to protect; and third, if national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations and if peaceful means are inadequate, the international community could take ‘collective action’ in a timely manner even to the point of using coercive force. 

Such a collective action must be through the authorisation of the Security Council on a case-by-case basis in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Article 51(2) of the UN Charter, which talks about collective action serves as an exception to Article 2(4), which prohibits the use of force by States. The inclusion of the concept of collective security has changed the structure within which humanitarian intervention could be explored.

Thus, when a State fails to discharge its responsibility to protect the human rights of its citizens from mass atrocity crimes, it calls for a justified intervention on behalf of other member states. Such intervention is justified because the intervened State has weakened its sovereignty due to the humanitarian catastrophe within its borders, and there arises a need to restore peace and uphold the principle of equal sovereignty as stated in Article 2(1) of the UN Charter. The argument that no State has legal jurisdiction over the citizens of other States fails here, because it can be followed that state sovereignty is not absolute. It is important to note that the R2P doctrine is an ally of sovereignty. It seeks to strengthen sovereignty and not weaken it by helping states meet their core protection policies.     

Inaction in Syria

The international community has been unwilling to engage with the R2P doctrine due to its limited test cases and ad-hoc application. This may be because more civilians were killed in NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 as compared to the deaths before the intervention. The use of veto power by Russia and China is another reason for the consistent failure by the international community to apply the R2P doctrine in Syria. The veto power is an expression of the individual State’s national interest and foreign policy. In 2014, Russia and China exercised their veto power on the Security Council’s resolution to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court. It has been argued that Russia exercised its veto because it has key strategic interests in protecting Assad’s regime. China, on the other hand, tends to resist western intervention in Syria as a matter of policy. It is problematic to see how such responses are influenced through political and national interests. States insist that they support the R2P doctrine, but they don’t seem to be willing to implement the same. The doctrine has served as a tool for national political agendas before performing the function of civilian protection. There is a lack of commitment on behalf of political leaders to collectively resolve the Syrian conflict.

The people in Syria are begging the international community to exercise their responsibility to protect. Syrians have experienced mass atrocity crimes, which are committed by both, the government forces and the rebels. There have been numerous attacks on medical facility centers and other civilian infrastructure. Moreover, there have been mass executions, numerous instances of sexual crimes targeted at women, and selling women and girls into sexual slavery. Syria has not only failed to uphold its responsibility to protect, but is also responsible for committing these mass atrocity crimes. In times like these, it is necessary to invoke the third element of the R2P doctrine, i.e. collective action. However, while Russia and the West are unable to find a common ground, such a collective action remains out of question.

It is amply clear that geopolitical rivalries that exist between nations have contributed to the international community’s failure to take any action in response to the Syrian crisis. The white card of veto power in the hands of the P5 nations has led to the misuse of the R2P doctrine. The international community must realize that the R2P doctrine is the most acceptable norm in today’s world because it incorporates security, human rights, and conflict prevention in a particular way, which does not ‘breach’ the sovereignty of states.


Gursehaj Singh is currently a 3rd year student pursuing B.B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. He has a keen interest in International Humanitarian Law.

Image: The Telegraph

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