Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 13:50 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 13:50 | SYDNEY

R2P, Syria and the real world


Rodger Shanahan


22 May 2012 14:14

I hate taking the apparent position of R2P naysayer because I think the concept is a moral, even noble, one. But the world is full of ignoble individuals and nation-states are driven by realpolitik as much, if not more, than they are by multilateral nobility. Which is why, with very few exceptions, the good ship 'R2P' (Responsibility to Protect) will nearly always end up becalmed in the sea of reality.

Crafting a workable policy from the R2P theory will nearly always be impossible for a range of practical and ideological reasons. The north/south divide that eventually scuttled the old notion of humanitarian intervention ('why are rich nations always intervening in less developed countries?') remains alive and well, but there are any number of other reasons why workable policy is hard to come up with.

Which is why Tim Dunne's post regarding Anne-Marie Slaughter's thoughts on R2P for Syria is full of holes. Her idea that, in a wired-up world, all non-violent citizens should become monitors represents a virtual ('scuse the pun) nirvana to the information operations specialists from government and opposition who already inundate the cyberworld with their tailored versions of reality.

With no way to regulate what goes on the web (and by whom), such a system becomes easy prey to even modestly skilled purveyors of alternative realities from either side. The catchphrase accompanying Syrian YouTube videos in news reports ('these images cannot be independently verified') is there for a reason. Putting it on a UN website would still make it unverified unless it was also seen by a UN observer – so what purpose would unverified social media serve? 

I don't know where to start with the second suggestion, de-recognising the state and recognising cities and provinces committed to non-violence. I know the Chinese have been reluctant supporters of Assad, but if you want Beijing to hit the veto button quicker than you can say 'Tibet' then this as a good start. And if you want Russia to back the Syrian state even harder than it now is, then this idea would likewise give Moscow further motivation.

On a more practical level, given the ebb and flow of insurgencies and civil wars, how is one to decide when a city or province is non-violent and when it's not? 'This week we recognise you, you and you but in two weeks it will only be you and then two months later....' I think you get the drift. And what if the governor or mayor has a peaceful region only because he has a modus vivendi with the government or the opposition where all dissent is dealt with well away from prying eyes?    

I am all for constructive debate about R2P and what to do in Syria, but thought bubbles masquerading as ideas (which even Anne-Marie Slaughter acknowledges may be fanciful to many) don't help the R2P cause. I can't therefore agree with Tim that these are 'welcome contributions'. Rather they are unwanted distractions in trying to craft a workable policy for a complex situation.

Photo by flickr user sharnik.