11/21/2013 03:31 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Protection in the Syrian Crisis

Failing to protect civilians in the Syrian crisis represents a collective failure of the UN Security Council. Not only does it cast doubt on the UN's ability to prevent and punish genocide. It also calls into question a core principle of the world body. Article 24 of the Charter assigns the Security Council with "primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security."

About 120,000 people have been killed and 9 million displaced since the outbreak of hostilities in Syria two years ago. More than 2.5 million people are trapped in besieged areas; the regime uses siege and starvation as a tactic of war. Easily prevented by basic hygiene and vaccination, diseases like polio and hepatitis are spreading. Deaths from hunger and sickness could equal the number of persons killed from armed conflict as the crisis continues into winter.

Events in Syria have eroded a century of progress in conflict prevention and protection. At the end of the 20th Century, the bloodiest in human history, a new balance had emerged between the rights of states and the rights of persons within states who suffer atrocities. In 1999, the United States led efforts to prevent from happening in Kosovo what happened in Bosnia. NATO's Kosovo intervention, undertaken without UN Security Council authorization, initiated a period of soul-searching by the international community about the legal and moral basis for intervening to prevent atrocities.

In 2000, Algeria's former Foreign Minister, Lakhdar Brahimi, led a blue-ribbon commission into shortcomings of the UN. The "Brahimi report" focused on situation analysis and improved systems for gathering information by the UN's High Level Threat Panel. It set the stage for a Canadian-sponsored initiative - the Responsibility to Protect "R2P." Presented in 2001, R2P articulated an institutional framework for humanitarian action, bestowing both moral authority and a legal basis for intervening to protect civilians in armed conflict.

R2P asserted the primacy of states. But when states fail their responsibility, R2P envisions coercive measures, such as targeted sanctions, travel bans, arms embargoes, and the threat of prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Military action, authorized by the UN Security Council, was a last resort after all nonviolent means at conflict prevention were exhausted.

America's 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq - in violation of international law and under false pretenses - undermined international support for intervention. Post-Iraq, the Council reflexively opposed intervention in almost any form. Russia and China led an "axis of sovereignty," finding common cause with countries in the Global South that were skeptical of intervention based on their historical experience with colonization.

In 2011, however, Muammar Gaddafi's threat of razing Benghazi represented such a serious threat to peace and security that Russia and China acquiesced to UN Resolution 1973 authorizing "all necessary measures to protect civilians... while excluding a foreign occupation force." Russia and China protested when the resolution appeared to be a Trojan horse for regime change. They vetoed 3 Council resolutions supporting sanctions to ratchet-up the pressure on Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Given the Council's incapacity, what is the international community doing to stop the carnage and protect civilians in Syria?

The Council has actually empowered Syria's President Bashar Al Assad by relying on him to manage the surrender of Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons. It is also engaging Assad in efforts to have peace talks, called "Geneva II." Its actions have helped Assad consolidate power, rather than recognize Assad's criminal culpability. When it comes to conflict prevention and protection, the Council has fallen flat.

Protection takes many forms. In Bosnia, for example, the Council adopted resolutions establishing safe havens and humanitarian corridors with monitors to navigate check-points and enforce a no-fly-zone. The massacre of 8,000 people in Srebrenica proved that protection requires enforcement. The Council's pronouncements are hollow, when there is a gap between rhetoric and action.

In the Syria case, Russia is blocking all measures that could infringe on Syria's sovereignty. The international community is focusing on gaining access to provide aid. The UN World Food Program deserves credit for feeding 4 million people each month. At its best, however, humanitarian assistance is a weak form of protection. It is an inadequate part of the protection response in the face of massive violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

On October 2, the Council issued a "Presidential Statement," highlighting humanitarian concerns. The statement was a positive step, but it was non-specific on practical measures. Nor did it mention accountability for war crimes targeting civilians.

The Presidential Statement should be turned into an "operational action plan." More hard-hitting than a statement, a Council resolution should demand unimpeded access to all civilians in need; call for a humanitarian pause, allowing the delivery of aid and medical services; endorse cross-border activities and the establishment of humanitarian corridors accessing besieged populations; and demand safe passage of civilians from high-risk areas. The Arab Group is working on a more action-oriented resolution.

The scale of aid is scandalously low. Donors should step-up and provide more winterization kits; support Syrian service providers working on the front-lines of conflict; and help pre-position medical supplies in potential hot-spots. Micro-interventions at the grass-roots level should be documented, replicated and scaled-up. The humanitarian response also needs an effective system for collecting, analyzing, managing and transmitting data on, for example, health services and polio vaccinations. Kuwait is planning a donor's conference in January 2014.

The "Arria formula" is a mechanism that allows Council members to meet outside of the chamber to hear from directly affected populations. Side events, including meetings based on the Arria formula, should be held spotlighting humanitarian issues. Australia or Luxembourg, non-permanent Council members, could convene.

To build consensus around humanitarian needs, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos should conduct weekly briefings for the Council. Amos is also the Emergency Relief Coordinator, well placed to provide daily reports on atrocities and a daily update on food blockages.

Geneva II represents an opportunity to link political dialogue with humanitarian issues. All parties to the conflict should be able to agree on ground-rules for humanitarian aid. Specifically, the regime should allow access to Homs, the Damascus suburbs, and Eastern Guta. The Free Syrian Army and other fighters should allow aid to Zahra and Nubl, Shi'a towns in the northwest corner of Syria.

Advocacy is essential. The world is increasingly disengaged, using the complexity of the Syrian crisis as an excuse for inaction. To promote accountability and compliance with international human rights and international humanitarian law, the international community should use its "moral authority" to "name-names" and "shame" the perpetrators of atrocities. Those who are shielding war criminals are guilty through association; they too must be held accountable.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau of the U.S. Department of State.