Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 06:22 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 06:22 | SYDNEY

Is R2P really O2P?


Rodger Shanahan


16 August 2011 16:29

Imagine two Arab cities of approximately 700,000 people, each surrounded by the military forces of autocratic regimes intent on crushing rebellions against its rule.

In one case, the West mounts an argument based on the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the UN authorises 'all necessary measures' to protect civilians in the city. The Arab League supports action and government forces are attacked by coalition warplanes, sparing the city and its inhabitants. In the other case, there are harsh words of condemnation from some Western countries and eventually from the Arab states and UN Security Council President, but only well after government forces enter the city and large numbers of people are killed.

The cities are of course Benghazi in Libya and Hama in Syria. And the different international reactions to events that exhibit tremendous similarities on the surface show why R2P is largely unworkable. The problem with Responsibility to Protect as a concept is that, while the lives of all human beings are worth saving, the willingness of states to intervene and the ability of military force to save them differs significantly depending on the circumstances. 

Our Government shares some of the blame for the confusion over R2P. In justifying Libya as a special case that deserved a military response, the Foreign Minister said that:

...the reason why Libya so far falls within a different category is because of the mass use of the full armed forces, the full security forces against innocent civilians in mass levels of destruction right across the Libyan state.

And yet if we replace Libya with Syria, surely the same holds true. 

Similarly, the Prime Minister said of the Libyan intervention that 'the motivator here is our responsibility to protect as human beings the people of Libya', yet she says nothing of our responsibility to protect the human beings who happen to be Syrian.

It is obvious that R2P cannot be universally applied because of the dictates of realpolitik. The problem with the real-world invocation of R2P is that those quickest to justify military action based on the principle never explain why they don't call for it in apparently similar circumstances. As a consequence, people are likely to lose faith (and even interest) in the concept.

Tim Dunne essentially says that R2P is a universally applicable concept but has to be subjectively applied. I agree, so I wonder why we call it a 'responsibility'. If we don't (or, more correctly, can't) accept the responsibility to protect all human beings regardless of the situation then we really haven't accepted any responsibility at all. Shouldn't we then change the name of the concept to more accurately reflect the fact that, as an international community, we apply it only when the opportunity presents itself? Aren't we really talking O2P rather than R2P?

Photo by Flickr user Ammar Abd Rabbo.