“Never again”: a phrase which has been repeated time and time again over much of the past century. Rising into the mainstream of the English language following the cruel and catastrophic events of World War II, humanity needed to look forward and adapt in order to turn over the darkest page in contemporary history. The world vowed to never let the history of WWII repeat itself. Never again to the levelling of cities and the slaughter of civilians; never again to the creation of millions of refugees; never again to concentration camps and genocide. But repeatedly the world bears witness to diminishing morality and destruction of humanity.
Has anything really changed? As humankind finds itself more connected than it has ever been, we have become more detached. The rapid and limitless transmission of information was intended to make humanity more aware, more considerate, but seemingly the opposite has occurred. Stories of famine in South Sudan are being substituted for stories of Trump’s morning breakfast; images of suffering in Yemen are being substituted with selfies; and scenes of suffocating children in Syria are being torn up by those in denial.
Rise of the growing global consciousness
Industrialization changed the face of warfare. With WWI the world caught a glimpse of the monumental destruction which could be caused in this new era of modernization. Fierce battles at the Somme and Verdun showed the terror, the trepidation, and the destruction industrialized warfare could cause on the battlefield. The Second World War embodied this change in warfare, and displayed the effectiveness industrialization could have on the brutality, and the cruelty of war.
With the unparalleled loss of life both on the battlefield and elsewhere, the end of the Second World War indicated a turning point in how states respond to genocide; the rise of a growing global consciousness followed. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide recognized the need for international coordination and cooperation “to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge”. The fading international norm of non-intervention contrasted with the rising norm of humanitarian intervention, and the UN was struggling to find its role in the world. The pendulum was moving through the processes of rebalancing.
Residents and emergency personnel cleaning up the rubble in the east German city of Dresden in 1945 – AFP
The global consensus defending the non-intervention of states felt a blow in 1994 with the Rwandan genocide. Some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in just 100 days. The UN ignored the unmistakable evidence of an imminent genocide and refused to act as it was unfolding; a failure the UN subsequently admitted. The UN faced a similarly pressing situation five years later in Kosovo, following shocking levels of brutality and violence committed against the Albanian Serbs by the Serbian strongman Milosevic. On this occasion, NATO undertook a bombing campaign, unsanctioned by the UN, in order to repel the ensuing violence: “Humanitarian bombing”. Illegal in action, but legitimate in nature was how many, including the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, classified the intervention.
In Rwanda, too little was done too late; in Kosovo, too much was done too soon.
In 2001, the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ISISS) responded to calls by Kofi Anan to address the situation, and produced a report on the responsibility to protect (R2P). The report offered an innovative view over how to perceive sovereignty, and provided a revaluation of the relationship between the public and the state. R2P interprets sovereignty as a conditional principle, not based on the rights of governing states but the duties they must perform to enjoy the privileges of sovereignty. Under the R2P doctrine, in a situation in which the state manifestly fails to protect its own citizens the international community adopts the responsibility to protect said civilians, and the need for state consent to intervene is removed. A version of R2P was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, and limited the necessity for intervention to four mass atrocity crimes.
Does anyone care about human rights?
The short life of the R2P doctrine has followed a discernible path, one which has crossed the globe and often found itself at the forefront of international diplomacy. Shrouded in obstacles and barriers the path taken by R2P, shaped by the shifting international order, is unrecognizable from that envisaged when the doctrine was initially laid out by the ICISS, and subsequently approved in a diluted form by the General Assembly.
R2P has experienced three distinct discussions. First came acceptance. The troubles which plagued the international community, notably in its ability to respond legitimately and legally to such humanitarian crises, were easily identifiable, and a global consensus recognized the need to address this. However, with acceptance came abuse; notably, in the case of the Libyan intervention in 2011.
UNSC Resolution 1970:
Agreed upon on Feb. 26, just 11 days after the outbreak of protests, UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1970 gained unanimous support from the Security Council, condemning the Gaddafi government and “recalling the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population”. The absence of any abstentions was significant, since all five BRICS nations were, at the time, seated on the Council. As potential future permanent members of the Council, the importance of Brazil, India, and South Africa’s vote cannot be understated; this was a positive first step in establishing international cooperation. An arms embargo, travel bans and asset freezes were placed on those considered culpable, with close ties to Gaddafi.
Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011 - Reuters/Goran Tomasevic
UNSC Resolution 1973:
The R2P doctrine is preventative in nature, however with the UNSC Resolution in 1973 for the first and only time, coercive military measures against a sovereign state were consented to under the direct guise of R2P. Never before has the UNSC given consent to military intervention in a sovereign state, with the sole aim of protecting civilians, and against the wishes of the government. The resolution again reiterated Libya’s responsibility to protect, and a no-fly zone was authorized with NATO assuming responsibility for its implementation. This intervention gave hope to those who wanted to see the establishment of R2P as a fully-fledged international norm, however, it achieved the complete opposite.
Second came refusal; and with refusal comes reversal. Much of the international community lost its trust in NATO and the R2P doctrine following the intervention in Libya. Russia and China vowed to not permit the violation of state sovereignty again; they refused the notion of R2P and advocating “all necessary measures”. While human rights atrocities have unfolded across the likes of Syria, Yemen, Libya and Burma, certain states are concertedly unwinding the fabric which forms our global consciousness.
As revolution unraveled into civil war, many actors began to voice their discontent with NATO’s mandate over-reach and the removal of Gaddafi. Together, permanent UNSC members China and Russia vetoed an initial Security Council draft resolution on Oct. 4, 2011, which aimed to hold the Assad government liable for the atrocities committed. Russian representative Vitaly Churkin would sum-up the Russian attitude toward Syria during this meeting, arguing that “the situation in Syria cannot be considered in the Council separately from the Libyan experience,” and declaring a “conflict of political approaches”. This attitude would transpire to have wide-reaching implications; Russia viewed Syria as an entirely different battlefield to Libya.
After the third double veto by Russia and China in July 2012, political and diplomatic efforts to come to a peaceful solution in Syria died down dramatically. NATO’s mandate overreach in Libya had negative knock-on effects for UN humanitarian inaction in Syria. States remain deeply suspicious of the hidden agendas behind purported claims of R2P intervention. Gareth Evans, co-chairman of the ICISS and the man widely credited with coming up with the “responsibility to protect" phrase, argued that the mandate deceit in Libya led to the “infection of the whole R2P concept”.
Third came disregard, and with disregard comes disaster. This is the situation the world is in now.
Men inspect a damaged site after double airstrikes on the rebel held Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, August 27, 2016 - REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
The fundamental failure of the doctrine, and its death blow, came with the U.S.-led strikes on Syrian infrastructure over the night for April 13, supposed central to its chemical weapons production. Don’t forget, the Syrian government’s chemical weapons were supposedly removed from the country and destroyed, in 2013, a rhetoric often used by the Assad regime to advance the false-flag narrative.
The campaign of terror adopted by the Syrian government against civilians has not relied upon chemical weapons do its dirty work; if anything, they have played a minor strategic role in the domestic context. Repeated use of other unconventional weapons in Syria vastly outweighs the use of chemical weapons in terms of destruction caused. Syrian forces have used a plethora of weapons from the air in an indiscriminate manner in order to terrify those on the ground into submission, the most infamous and widespread of these being the use of barrel bombs, which some refer to as the greatest threat to civilians. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) almost 13,000 were dropped in 2016, while its harrowing report published on Christmas Day last year made note of 70,000 barrel bombs dropped since July 2012.
“The repeated use of this arbitrary, indiscriminate weapon against residential communities is a message to the Syrian people that protecting civilians and international law are mere illusions,” wrote Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of SNHR.
But the story doesn’t end at barrel bombs. Consistently, government snipers have been deployed to instill fear in the hearts of the population. Reports from doctors within Syria speak of a chilling game being played by government forces, targeting different civilian body parts on a day-to-day basis, in order to win a menial pack of cigarettes. On one day alone, six pregnant women were shot in the uterus, in a campaign referred to as “hell beyond hell”. Death squads – al-Shabiha – have also played an important role in Assad’s survival.
Why did the international community not act at such a crucial time? The answer lies in the Security Council. It must permit states to act in accordance with the reasonability to protect doctrine. With Russia intervening on behalf of the Assad regime in 2015, and many states having lost their faith in the R2P doctrine following the events in Libya, all initiatives put to the Security Council to intervene militarily in Syria were blocked. Russia and China have bared the brunt of the responsibility for undermining the doctrine, but the U.S., UK and France have given the death blow.
When, over the night of April 13, the U.S., UK and France struck Syrian infrastructure purported to host the Syrian government’s chemical weapons program, the future of R2P was squashed. The attacks, the biggest intervention by western powers against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since war broke out in 2011, failed to get the support of the UN Security Council and was conducted unilaterally. But, they were conducted under the guise of humanitarian intervention.
A Syrian soldier inspects the wreckage of a building described as part of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) compound in the Barzeh district north of Damascus, during a press tour organized by the Syrian government after US-led strikes - AFP
In justification of the strikes, the UK’s statement read: “To alleviate the extreme humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their further use.”
“The UK is permitted under international law, on an exceptional basis, to take measures in order to alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering.”
If this was the case, why did the international community not intervene during the slaughter of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, regardless of chemical weapons. Where was the intervention during the Syrian government’s campaign to re-take Aleppo? Why did the U.S.-led mission level the cities of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq?
To alleviate extreme humanitarian suffering? The nature of the conflict shows that the care for people’s livelihood has taken a backseat role, as has R2P. How does the tragedy caused by chemical weapons differ from that caused by barrel-bombs, death squads, and incendiary weapons? Repeated indiscriminate use of other unconventional weapons in Syria vastly outweighs the destruction caused by chemical weapons. Is the intervention that has been taken now against the Assad regime citing humanitarian concerns? Why not years ago?
Russia and China have been blamed for blocking attempts by the international community to invoke R2P and protect civilians, but the willingness of the U.S., UK and France to act independently of the Security Council is equally as damaging to the doctrine as it clearly demonstrates that all actors are acting on individual or collective interest, and not in the interest of humanity.