Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:28 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:28 | SYDNEY

R2P here to stay, as process and principle

15 June 2012 13:30

Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia, Singapore and Kuwait and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen. 

Both Rodger Shahanan (in his thoughtful piece on the relative failure of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm in Syria) as well as Alex Bellamy and Tim Dunne (in their detailed study on what R2P can and cannot be) are right: no, R2P is not a binding tool of international law, but yes, R2P is a novel and useful principle to improve on international involvement to protect civilians from genocide and mass atrocities.

Since the very beginning of the UN it has been an iron law that nothing can be done with or through the UN without the support, or at least the silent tolerance, of all permanent members of the Security Council. That was exactly what the Charter's creators wanted, fully aware that, the basic 'one country, one vote' principle underlying the UN notwithstanding, some states are more equal than others.

That hasn't changed. The Libyan resolution was possible because it was tolerated by Russia and China; a similar resolution on Syria is impossible at this time because Russia fears for its access to the Mediterranean, an aim pursued since Czarist times, and because any international measure against a single country strikes at the heart of the theory of absolute national sovereignty especially dear to any authoritarian regime.

But even Russian and Chinese authorities could not overlook the gruesome reality of the Hama massacre, brought home to countless millions all over the world, including Russians and Chinese, thanks to social media. Both had to support the condemnation of the massacre, thus conceding the point that there is cause to protect, a first step on the way to R2P, which is a process, not an instant remedy.

R2P cannot be compared, at least not yet, to other novel measures in international law such as the International Criminal Court, with its indictments and sentences, usually referred to as 'hard' international law. R2P creates the possibility, but not the obligation, to intervene as opposed to the obligation of all states to arrest persons, including heads of state, indicted by the ICC (that some have not done so with regard to Bashir of Sudan is another story, but note how little the man travels lately).

Furthermore, R2P is very much dependent on specific situations. As we all know, the Syrian case (civil war, destabilisation of Lebanon, involvement of Iran etc) is far more complex than Libya ever was. And R2P says nothing about who and with how much an intervention should be undertaken.

Yet R2P, even as it stands today, has already achieved two fundamental changes for the better in international relations. It has shown how universal human rights, one of the great achievements of the UN system, can be enforced in the right circumstances, following a principle with precedents. It has also made our world a little less comfortable for dictators and their cronies, ready to walk over corpses when their personal gains are in danger. That is not too bad considering that international relations work by the 'best endeavour' principle.

Photo by Flickr user Foreign and Commonwealth Office.