Tag Archives: responsibility to protect

Preventing Torture and the Responsibility to Protect

New and graphic video released by Syrian dissidents shows massive torture regime allegedly orchestrated by Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. The Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a group of Syrian Americans campaigning for a more interventionist US policy to address what they describe as a genocide being perpetrated by the Syrian regime, says the video highlights the need for a more aggressive international response.

The United Nations Convention against Torture, ratified by 158 countries including the United States and Syria, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimating or coercing him or a third person, for for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or pother person acting in an official capacity.” States are expected to take measures to prevent torture in territories under their jurisdiction, including investigating accusations of torture. More broadly, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a still-contested principle in international human rights law, would suggest that the United States and other parties have a responsibility for intervening to prevent gross human rights violations around the world.

What do you think? What responsibility does the international community have to prevent acts of torture in Syria and elsewhere? What limits, if any, exist on that responsibility? Would you support intervention in Syria to protect human rights and prevent torture? Why?

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Syrian Gas Attacks and the Responsibility To Protect

Doctors tend to a victim of sarin nerve gas near Damascus, Syria.

Doctors tend to a victim of sarin nerve gas near Damascus, Syria.

On Wednesday Syrian opposition groups released multiple videos supporting their claim that the Syrian government had launched chemical weapon attacks against opposition forces in the suburbs of Damascus. The attacks resulted in hundreds of deaths, including dozens of children. United Nations observers in Syria have so far been denied access to the area and are thus unable to confirm the attacks, but the videos leave little room for doubt that something took place. Most observers believe that the chemicals were some variety of sarin nerve gas, which induces nausea and drooling following by loss of control of bodily functions, convulsion, and ultimately death by asphyxiation.

Sarin was classified as a weapon of mass destruction by United Nations Resolution 687 of 1991, and its production or stockpiling was outlawed by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. If confirmed, the use of sarin gas would constitute an escalation of the ongoing conflict in Syria, notably crossing a “red line” established by the Obama administration earlier this year.

The videos that have been released are powerful and contain disturbing footage. Viewer discretion is advised.

The Russian government has issued a statement claiming that there is no evidence that sarin gas was used, and that if it was used, there’s no evidence that it was the Syrian government rather than rebel groups that were responsible for its use. This move suggests that reaching consensus at the United Nations on future action in Syria may prove difficult. At the same time, the “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P) doctrine articulated by the United Nations in 2005 suggests that the international community has an obligation to act. R2P has three pillars:

  1. States have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.
  2. The international community has a responsibility to assist states in fulfilling their obligations under the first pillar.
  3. If a state “manifestly fails” to protect its population as required under the first pillar and peaceful measures by the international community under the second pillar have failed, the international community has “the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures,” which military intervention remaining the last resort.

The R2P doctrine is considered a norm rather than in legally binding international law, but its importance (both symbolic and moral) is rooted in the failure of the international community to address genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere. How exactly it may play out the Syrian context remains unresolved, but is certainly something worth watching.

What do you think? Does the responsibility to protect doctrine necessitate international intervention in Syria? Would such intervention be productive? Why? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Is the UN Security Council Broken?

The UN Security Council votes on a resolution endorsing an Arab League peace plan for Syria. The resolution was defeated by vetoes from Russia and China.

Yesterday’s veto, by Russia and China, of a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Syria’s crackdown on regime opponents and supported an Arab League plan to end the violence has provoked outrage from Western governments, human rights organizations, and international relations experts.  The veto came amid a brutal crackdownin the city of Homs that reportedly left over 200 people dead.  Russia and China claim that the resolution unfairly singled out Syria’s government for blame and ignored the culpability of opposition fighters.

The Syria crisis is only the latest in a series of cases in which the UN has failed to act against atrocities seemingly condemned by its charter due to the veto power granted to the “Big Five” permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China.  If any of these five members votes against a Security Council resolution, the resolution is automatically defeated.  (The Syria vote was 13 in favor and 2 opposed).

Even the UN’s strongest supporters have expressed great disappointment at this vote and have suggested that the UN has failed in one of its core missions.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement saying the vote “undermines the role of the United Nations and the international community in this period when the Syrian authorities must hear a unified voice calling for an immediate end to its violence against the Syrian people.”

Middle East expert Marc Lynch likewise highlighted the serious implications–far beyond Syria–of this failure: “…The failure of the UN to act, as Secretary General Ban Ki Moon suggested, harms the institution itself by revealing its inability to act in defense of the Charter’s promise. The next stages, whether military or not (and I expect not), will more resemble the Kosovo and Iraq campaigns which were launched without international legitimacy. This will significantly undermine the prospects that such actions will contribute to the positive development of international norms of atrocity prevention or the more controversial ‘responsibility to protect.'”

Is it time to drastically reform the UN, perhaps by eliminating the veto privileges of the Big Five, a group of countries that is increasingly unrepresentative of the international community at large?  Does the Syria vote cast doubt on the continued utility of the UN as an instrument of international peace and security in the 21st century?

Is State Sovereignty a Privilege of the Strong?

Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on Trial in the Hague.

State sovereignty—the right to independence and noninterference in one’s internal affairs—is a bedrock principle of today’s international system.  It is an important international norm (a widely accepted rule prescribing appropriate behavior), it is enshrined in the United Nations charter, and its history can be traced back to the genesis of the modern Westphalian system in 1648.  However, as constructivists have pointed out, sovereignty is an evolving norm: at one time the powerful states of Europe—the leaders of the international system—only viewed fellow white, Christian countries as deserving of sovereignty, a view that justified imperialism in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.  The norm evolved gradually as a wider and wider group of countries was seen as deserving of sovereignty, and today the principle is widely accepted as applying universally.

While the sovereign equality of all states is a principle that today’s countries praise and claim to respect, there is growing evidence that for a certain class of countries, sovereignty has its limits. 

In March 2011 the UN Security Council authorized member states to use force to protect Libya’s civilians from a brutal crackdown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.  NATO forces have essentially taken the side of the rebels in Libya’s civil war and some leaders, including President Obama, have called for Qaddafi to step down.  In a similar case a decade earlier, NATO forces bombed Belgrade, eventually forced Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic from power, and paved the way for an independent Kosovo after Milosevic had unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Albanians in Kosovo—a province of Serbia and thus ostensibly an “internal matter.”  This week’s arrest of war criminal Ratko Mladic in Serbia and his extradition to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague is only the latest example of political and military officials being held accountable to supranational authorities including the International Criminal Court.  The ICC, under its ambitious Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has gone so far as to issue arrest warrants for sitting heads of state including Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

In short, international norms seem to be evolving away from unconditional sovereignty and toward a “responsibility to protect” doctrine that says if governments fail to protect their own people from grave human rights abuses the international community has the right to intervene to do so.  But is this high-minded doctrine applied selectively to target only those countries who lack the political clout, economic pull, or military muscle to defend their own sovereignty?  Do China and Russia get away with human rights abuses because of their great power status and UN Security Council veto privileges?  Does Saudi Arabia get off the hook because of its oil wealth and powerful benefactors?  Does America’s superpower status render its political and military elites immune from ICC action despite allegations that the U.S.is responsible for war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan?  If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” is there anything that can be done about it, or was the historian and early realist Thucydides correct when he famously said that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”?