Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi argue in a New York Times op-ed that the international community should invoke the “Responsibility to Protect” principle to intervene in Syria but unwittingly illustrate why this is a dangerous doctrine.
They explain the situation, the key excerpts from which are:
THE Syrian people are starving. According to the United Nations, about 800,000 civilians are currently under siege. In areas around the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor and in parts of the capital, Damascus, no food, medical supplies or humanitarian aid can get in, and people can’t get out. Many have already died under these “starvation sieges” and hundreds of thousands teeter on the brink, subsisting on grass and weeds….
Military forces — mainly the army of President Bashar al-Assad, but in some cases extremist anti-Assad militias — are preventing food and medicine from reaching trapped civilians. In addition to starving, many people in besieged areas have been stricken by diseases, including polio, but can’t get medical treatment because doctors can’t get through.
Then they argue:
We should invoke the Responsibility to Protect, the principle that if a state fails to protect its populations from mass atrocities — or is in fact the perpetrator of such crimes — the international community must step in to protect the victims, with the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council. And if a multinational force cannot be assembled, then at least some countries should step up and organize Syria’s democratically oriented rebel groups to provide the necessary force on the ground, with air cover from participating nations.
There are precedents to follow. The American-led and United Nations-approved multinational effort in Somalia between December 1992 and May 1993 was authorized to use “all necessary measures” to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid. In retrospect, this all-but-forgotten operation was largely successful in humanitarian terms. While public attention has focused on the “Black Hawk Down” battle of October 1993, a military failure, the strictly humanitarian goal of getting food to starving Somalis was in fact a success.
The U.S. used the cover of a U.N. mandate of a humanitarian mission to launch military operations to further its own policy goals. More recently, the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine was invoked in Libya, where, again, the U.S./NATO used the cover of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians to pursue its own agenda. The U.S./NATO exceeded the mandate and, in violation of international law, used force to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. Subsequent efforts to get a similar resolution passed to intervene in Syria have failed in no small part because countries like Security Council members Russia and China do not want a repeat in which the U.S. uses a U.N. resolution as cover to implement its policy of regime change in Syria, as well. The “Responsibility to Protect” principle is also closely linked with the “illegal but legitimate” doctrine developed after the U.S./NATO bombing of Kosovo, which resulted in an escalation in violence and atrocities on the ground that were then ex post facto used as justification for the bombing.
One could debate the legitimacy of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine in theory. But in reality, if there is any legitimacy to the idea, it has been undermined by the U.S.’s efforts to carry out its own foreign policy agendas under the guise of “humanitarian” interventions.