Syrian lives in the balance while UN debates its remit to protect civilians: Deakin research

Media release
21 May 2018

The very instrument the United Nations established to protect citizens from state-sanctioned atrocities is preventing the international community from saving the lives of Syrian civilians, according to new research from Deakin University Middle East politics researchers.

In a paper published in the journal International Politics, Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh and PhD candidate Arif Saba argue that disagreement within the UN Security Council over employing the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle has prevented the international community from fulfilling its obligation to protect Syrian civilians.

“The Syrian conflict is now in its eighth year with a death toll of some 400,000 and more than 11 million people displaced or have lost their homes, livelihoods and family members,” said Professor Akbarzadeh, Deputy Director of the University’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation.

“The scale of the devastation is beyond imagination, yet the international community has resisted taking action.

“The R2P agenda, developed in the wake of international inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, provides a way for the international community to intervene in Syria however disagreement over the intent of its use is preventing UN action.”

Professor Akbarzadeh said R2P provided an option for the international community to step in to protect the public when a state was unable or unwilling to intervene in atrocities against the civilian population with or without the consent of the state in question.

“It is the tension caused when it was enacted during the civil war in Libya in 2011 that is at the core of the stalemate within the UNSC over approving its use in Syria,” he said.

“The intention of R2P is to protect citizens and not directly act for regime change, however removing by force a murderous regime could be seen as the way to save civilian lives.

“This is what happened in Libya when NATO operations against Libyan armed forces ended after then leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed by rebel forces. What followed for the Libyan people was widespread and systematic human rights violations on a scale that far exceeds the brutal excesses of the Gaddafi regime.

“Ultimately, the legacy of Libya and the attemptto replicate a similar scenario in Syria has hampered the protection of Syrian civilians with some countries, including Russia and China, of the opinion that R2P may increasingly be used by certain states in the West as a smokescreen for unconstitutional change of unfriendly governments.”

Professor Akbarzadeh said there was an urgent need to find a remedy to the practical-conceptual confusion in the principle of R2P.

“In order to fulfil R2P’s core mandate, a clear distinction needs to be maintained between regime change and the responsibility to protect civilians,” he said.

“One possible option could be a strict adherence to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s original criteria governing the use of force, supplemented by the Brazilian-proposed concept of the ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ and China’s semi-official concept of ‘Responsible Protection’.

“This would call for a greater UNSC role in overseeing the implementation of the UN resolution mandating the use of force by establishing monitoring and accountability mechanisms.

“If such mechanism were already in place, the Libyan trajectory could have been avoided.

“In a moment of transitional international order, this could also be a test case for the West to accommodate the concerns of non-Western rising powers and for non-Western rising powers to take up their role as ‘responsible’ stakeholders.”

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Media release School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Education Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI)

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