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Dean Schwartz on R2P & Syria

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The following essay by Dean Eric Schwartz is adapted from remarks he shared at an event for retired Foreign Service Officers in June 2012:

I want to talk today about international intervention to end the most egregious forms of human rights abuses.  In short, I want to argue that the evolving norm of the responsibility to protect creates both opportunities and imperatives to save lives, including lives in Syria.

                The discussion of this issue usually moves right to the question of humanitarian intervention - or the use of force against by one state against another when the goal is ending human rights violations.

                But in fact, the discussion of the responsibility of the international community to protect individuals from rights violations really involves a range of actions in addition to the use of force.  And as I will discuss, this evolving norm is based on the notion that sovereignty not only confers rights on states and their leaders, but also responsibilities for the well-being of their citizens; and that when state leaders are unable or unwilling to prevent widespread and systematic violations of the rights of their citizens, the international community - that is, other governments - can step in to try to save lives.

                So, in what context did this idea, this doctrine, arise - or at least, what recent events hastened its development? 

Let’s go back to the advent of the Clinton Administration, in 1993, an Administration that entered office with a commitment to what was termed assertive multilateralism.  That term was described by then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, as an effort to exercise, and I quote, “both multilateral engagement and U.S. leadership within collective bodies” - a forward-leaning approach toward U.S. efforts to help make the world a better place. 

The Administration initially envisioned a substantially enhanced role for peacekeeping within U.S. foreign policy.  But by the end of the Clinton Administration’s first year in office, initial skepticism in the Congress was replaced by outright hostility following the October 3, 1993 deaths of American soldiers during a U.S. military action designed to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farid Aideed.

In Somalia, the United States had acted in support of a United Nations Operation in Somalia, UNOSOM II, which had a broad mandate to assist in recreating Somali state institutions and which had replaced a more limited mission focused on effective delivery of humanitarian assistance.  While proponents of the broader mandate argued that a political development role was essential to prevent a recurrence of famine, members of Congress maintained that the mandate was too ambitious and a misuse of American resources. 

In short, the U.S. experience in Somalia resulted in a much greater reluctance by the Clinton Administration to consider use of U.S. troops in operations not deemed central to U.S. national security, and this was the context in which the Clinton Administration confronted the situation in Rwanda in 1994.  In April 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents was shot down under mysterious circumstances, and there then followed the ruthless and grotesque killing of anywhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans in a campaign of violence designed to eliminate the minority Tutsi population from the country.  There were many rationales articulated for the relative inaction by the international community, but there is no question that, in the United States, the timid response - and the parameters for decision-making - was framed in large measure by the Somalia experience.  Robust options were for response were never on the table. 

                A year later, in July 1995, we saw additional inaction in the face of genocide-like violence, when Serb forces killed thousands of Bosnian civilians within the beleaguered Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica.  And this took place after the United Nations Security Council had declared Srebrenica to be a safe haven.  Nonetheless, Dutch troops essentially stood by while the slaughter took place.

                These two events helped to inspire good deal of soul-searching, including United Nations reports on how the Srebrenica and Rwandan massacres might have been prevented, as well as Secretary General Kofi Annan’s establishment of a blue ribbon panel on peacekeeping reform - which, among other conclusions, asserted that UN peacekeepers must be better prepared and equipped to protect civilians if the peacekeepers are going to be put into situations of violence.

                And, of course, at about the same time, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in East Timor, and in Sierra Leone, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other governments, informed by the sorry experiences of Rwanda and Srebrenica, seemed more prepared to use force to end or prevent mass killings.  Sometimes that occurred with the blessing of the UN Security Council; but, in the case of Kosovo, for example, sometimes it did not.

Thus, by the end of the 1990s, governments were discussing the question of intervention and legitimacy and, to be precise, the issue of moral imperative versus right authority.

Of course, having both on your side is the ideal.  Having a claim on morality is critically important; but it also helps enormously to be seen to be acting lawfully. 

                On the benefits of legitimacy, one only need look at the contrast between the U.S. experiences between the first and second Gulf wars of the last two decades.  In the first case, after the invasion of Kuwait, the United States was successful in obtaining Security Council authorization for the intervention; many countries participated, and governments other than the United States paid the vast majority of the costs of the operation.  In the second Iraq war, where the legitimacy of a clear and unequivocal UN Security Council resolution was not present, few countries participated, and the overwhelming bulk of the several trillion dollars in expenses will be borne by the American people.

                In 1999, UN Secretary General Kofi Anna took this moral imperative versus right authority question head-on, when, in a speech before the UN General Assembly, he declared -

The Kosovo conflict and its outcome have prompted a wide debate of profound importance to the resolution of conflicts from the Balkans to Central Africa to East Asia. And to each side in this critical debate, difficult questions can be posed.

To those for whom the greatest threat to the future of international order is the use of force in the absence of a Security Council mandate, one might ask — not in the context of Kosovo — but in the context of Rwanda: If, in those dark days and hours leading up to the genocide, a coalition of States had been prepared to act in defense of the Tutsi population, but did not receive prompt Council authorization, should such a coalition have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold?


To those for whom the Kosovo action heralded a new era when States and groups of States can take military action outside the established mechanisms for enforcing international law, one might ask: Is there not a danger of such interventions undermining the imperfect, yet resilient, security system created after the Second World War, and of setting dangerous precedents for future interventions without a clear criterion to decide who might invoke these precedents, and in what circumstances?


The challenge, of course, is to bring together moral imperative and right authority.

So how do we do this?

                Shortly after the Kosovo intervention, the British government explored the establishment of such a humanitarian norm.  In a speech in Chicago in 1999, Prime Minister Blair argued that it is justifiable to intervene to stop a genocide, or massive flows of refugees, due to threats to international peace and security - linking the rationale to a specific UN Charter provision that relates to the role of the Security Council in peace and security.

                I was at the National Security Council at the time, and was visited by British diplomats seeking to translate the Prime Minister’s perspectives into doctrine of sorts.  In a wide-ranging and informal conversation, they suggested the possibility of a Security Council resolution articulating circumstances that might justify this intervention.  Their logic was that with prior broad agreement by Security Council members, it would be easier to get Council approval quickly to intervene in specific cases where thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of lives were at stake.  And they suggested further that if Security Council members could not agree on a resolution authorizing intervention in a specific case, the existence of a prior, and generic resolution laying out the basis for humanitarian intervention would confer greater legitimacy on governments that decided to act even in the absence of a case-specific Council resolution.

                This search for legitimacy continued when, at about the same time as the Blair speech, the Government of Canada helped spur the establishment of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a blue ribbon panel chaired by former Australian diplomat Gareth Evans and former Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun - and charged with examining the issue of intervention to save lives.

                In 2000, the Panel issued its “Responsibility to Protect” report, the main component of a broader project on which I had the privilege to serve as a contributor.  The panel developed its conclusions with a focus on addressing large scale loss of life and large-scale ethnic cleansing of civilians, including through prevention of atrocities, effective reaction to the advent of abuses, and the rebuilding process following large scale violence.  They based the authority of their recommendations on what they termed to be the obligations of sovereignty, international peace and security requirements of the UN Charter, general international legal obligations, and developing practice among states.  And they argued that certain principles should guide decisions to intervene with force, including right intention - that is, an intention to save and safeguard lives; as well as the principle that intervention should be seen as a last resort, should be proportional to the threat, and should take place with reasonable prospects of success.

                On the issue of specific authority to take action that would challenge the normal sovereign prerogatives of a state, the Commission argued that UN Security Council approval of decisions on humanitarian intervention was highly desirable and should be sought.  On the other hand, they contended that the Permanent Five members of the Council, each of which wields a veto, should not withhold support for intervention when there was a risk of large-scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing.  They went on to say that if such approval was withheld, states would inevitably act unilaterally to save lives, and the Council members would only have themselves to blame for the erosion of their own authority.

                This doctrine, known as R2P, is slowly and fitfully becoming an international norm and influencing the practice of states. 

In 2005, the Secretary General endorsed the norm in his “In Larger Freedom” report, and he urged member states to follow suit.  In the same year, UN General Assembly member states, in a World Summit Outcome document, endorsed the principle and, in April 2006, the UN Security Council endorsed that Outcome document, with its reference to R2P.

The Security Council has made reference to the responsibility to protect in its resolutions, relating to the deployment of peacekeepers in Darfur, for example.  And, of course, the R2P concept dominated discussions surrounding the Libya intervention, and the resolution that authorized the intervention, Security Council resolution 1973, spoke of the responsibility to protect and the protection of civilians. 

To be sure, whatever the extent of Obama Administration and White House discussions of R2P as such prior the intervention, the imperative of civilian protection clearly informed official decision-making, as Libyan troops were marching on Benghazi and tens of thousands of lives were imperiled.  And the R2P principle created an opportunity, and an opening for action in the international community.

Before turning to Syria, allow me to make a few key issues raised by this admittedly optimistic appraisal.

First, with respect to intervention, while the R2P concept focus is on the saving of lives, the fact is that simply saving lives in an urgent situation may not be enough.  And this simple observation brings us back to the Somalia case that began this discussion.  Unless you are prepared to protect people forever, you may not be able to avoid a deeper engagement in efforts to help create indigenous institutions that will protect people over time. 

Second, does the responsibility to protect create an obligation to protect?  And, if so, how to choose - and who chooses - where intervention should take place?

Third, who determines when use of force is, indeed, the last resort and appropriate? 

Answers are not self-evident.

                These are all critical questions, and certainly relevant to the situation we confront today in Syria, to which I’ll now briefly turn my attention.

                The tragic situation in the country has been well-documented.  In early 2011, Syrian citizens called for political reforms and the removal of President Bashir Assad and an end to Ba’ath Party rule.  In return, the regime has acted ruthlessly in dealing with opposition elements.  Syria’s President, Bashir al-Assad, appears to have taken a page out of the playbook of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who massacred thousands of residents of the city of Hama in 1982, when members of the Sunni Muslim community rose up in opposition to the Assad regime. 

It seems clear that the message Bashir Assad has taken from transitions in Tunisia and Egypt is that concessions will be a likely route to regime demise.  The army has been deployed, and many thousands of civilians have been killed, tens of thousands of are believed to be imprisoned, and more than 60,000 refugees have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, with thousands more in Syria who are internally displaced.

                There is also a religious dimension to the conflict, as Assad’s regime is associated with Syria’s Alawite minority, a religious group often described as an offshoot of Shia Islam.  The regime has been supported by Iran, while Sunni governments in the region have expressed their desire to see Assad regime come to an end.  And, as we found in the case of Rwanda two decades ago, a civil war narrative competes with a human rights narrative, impacting the inclination of others to intervene.

And, of course, the rest of the international community is hardly of one mind on how best to respond.  Early in the year, China and Russia vetoed a United Nations resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan urging that al-Assad give up power.  However, the Chinese and the Russians have been prepared to agree to a negotiation effort led by former Secretary General Kofi Annan involving a six-point proposal that falls well short of regime change.  Those components include a commitment to work with the Envoy on a Syrian-led political process to the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people, a commitment to end the fighting and achieve a ceasefire to include the immediate end of troop movements toward population centers, the end to use of heavy weapons in those centers, and the beginning of a pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers; a willingness to permit humanitarian aid; an intensification of release of political prisoners, as well as provision of information about and access to detainees; an agreement to permit journalists to move freely; and respect for freedom of association and assembly.

In addition, two Security Council resolutions provide for deployment of civilians to monitor implementation of these measures.  While the monitors have been deployed, they have more recently been pulled back from the field due to violence that has made it impossible for them to do their work, and has been their safety in jeopardy.

Needless to say, there has been little indication that the regime is prepared to seriously engage the Annan process.  Nor is there any indication that the measures taken by the United States and others, measures that have yet to include a credible threat of the use of force, will end the bloodshed.

The limits of U.S. influence were put into stark relief in a recent satirical piece by Geoffrey Aronson in the journal Foreign Policy, when he wrote, and I quote, “the administration’s unprecedented verbal and written sorties against the Assad regime have included some of the most powerful adjectives, adjectival intensifiers and adverbs ever aimed at an American foe. This campaign has helped Syrians understand, among other things, that the English language contains many synonyms for repulsive.”  He ends the piece by noting we will shortly “learn that U.S. patience is completely exhausted.”  Then, he notes, “Assad should really be careful.”

However revealing it is about the limits of U.S. influence, the piece is unfair.  For one thing, the obstacles to more forceful action are formidable.  Unlike the case of Libya, there is very strong opposition to action within the Security Council, there is no Arab consensus on the use of force against Assad, and the regime’s capacity to respond to the use of force is far more significant than was the capacity of Muammar Qaddafi.  In addition, the Administration has sought assiduously to isolate the regime, has imposed additional sanctions, and has indicated an increase in its non-lethal support of the Syrian opposition. 

At the same time, it is clear that there is no easy option that is likely to bring this wretched regime to a quick end.  And, if that is indeed the case, what about the R2P doctrine?

Should governments and advocates continue to deploy it? 

Yes, for several reasons.

First, while it is hardly decisive, R2P remains a tool of advocacy that can be used to shame those governments resistant to more forceful action by the international community.

Second, if the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate further and there is continued Russian, Chinese and Iranian intransigence, the R2P doctrine provides a political rationale for action.  Even if a Security Council resolution sanctioning the use of force is not possible, strong application of the norm promotes critical support and legitimacy for stronger action among many states.  As scholar Tamara Wittes of the Brookings Institution argued to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee very recently, and I quote, “anticipating the failure of diplomacy and preparing for more coercive options is not only realistic, it is also necessary to create the pressure that will give diplomacy its best chance of success.”  Stronger actions, such as airstrikes against the regime, should indeed be considered and, if they go forward, a responsibility to protect rationale could be quite valuable.

And finally, continued strengthening of this norm has benefits beyond Syria.  Violation of the basic obligation of sovereignty - to ensure against mass killings or cleaning of one’s own population - must become more and more subject to international condemnation and international action. 

And when that occurs, we offer the prospect of a brighter future for many millions of people around the world.

Thank you.

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