Recently, Frontline (PBS) premiered Syria Behind the Lines, yet another graphic depiction of the civil war in Syria. This, along with constant news reports, photo features, and editorials, not to mention the deaths of journalists like Marie Colvin and photojournalist Rémi Ochlik, among countless others killed, harmed, or displaced, have caused damning laments about the lack of involvement (read: intervention) in Syria among world powers, and most specifically, the permanent five (P5) of the UN Security Council (UNSC).
World leaders and the UN, inclusive of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and representatives from former UNSG Kofi Annan to Valerie Amos (USG/ERC of OCHA) denounce the violence of the Assad regime in the strongest possible language without any workable framework to functionally address it. Failed UN Security Council Resolutions (2042 and 2043 in 2012) have been passed without the staunch conviction of continued prescribed action behind them, or reliance on anything but cloying support of the affected while platitudes are substituted for intervention. The usual result in such cases: the tendency to kick the proverbial can while a hotbed of traditional conflict, and an increased jihadist foothold, explode past the point of no return.
By the beginning of Arab Spring, the notion of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P or RtoP), originating with its formal introduction in 2001 with a report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICSS), had been bandied about as a neologism for a new paradigm of Human Security post-Cold War, meaning to replace the term "intervention," which like Realpolitik and the hard, Westphalian notions of state sovereignty seemed to be too reflective of old, combative Cold War rhetoric.
Instead, it suggested that not only should "protection" be part of the approach for those facing atrocity when the state itself was unwilling or unable to assure such protection, but further, there should be the political will, and a structure, to "prevent" atrocity, inclusive of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and ethnic cleansing, from ever taking place.
For developing countries, this neologism was met with much hesitation, as it seemed yet another euphemism for the kinds of old-style intervention they were more used to, smacking of the kinds of neo-imperialism in which world powers intervened less for the purposes of any new, altruistic notion of human security than for geopolitical reasons of regional influence, power-brokering and/or control of natural resources in what was once called the geopolitical "South".
While R2P was successful, according to proponents, in places like Kenya (2008) and Libya (2011), there has not been much talk about R2P since Syria exploded from an uprising to a full-blown civil war. The pertinent question in light of what were thought to be R2P's successes: why?
In the recent editorial in Foreign Policy by Jon Western and Joshua S. Goldstein, "R2P After Syria: To Save the Doctrine, Forget Regime Change" (March 26, 2013), the authors suggest that Syria does represent a failure of R2P, however, R2P was never meant to be a "panacea."
This suggestion seems to be fully contradicted by the most fervent voices behind R2P, including in a book by Oxford University Press, titled The Responsibility to Protect: The Responsibilities of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Time (2012) which covers R2P through Libya, in which during the introduction, Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel state unequivocally: "[R2P] is far more than an aspirational doctrine. It is a clear and unequivocal public commitment by world leaders that can and will prevent mass atrocities."
However those who were singing R2P's praises seemed a bit "blinded by the light" as it were when it came to real and pragmatic issues that needed to be addressed for any kind of functional, operational protocol(s) to be derived from even some of its more "radical" concepts, such as prevention. Basically, it seemed people in the driver's seat, once again, were content coast for a while and decide how implement R2P down the road. This knowing, too, that haggling over pragmatic considerations would almost assuredly end up watering down its tenets even further in the attempt to gain consensus.
In gaining such positive attention before Syria, it was only a matter of time before R2P as an "emerging norm" would really be tested, and without any real, pragmatic or operational structure in place, ideas can become impotent very quickly from a ground perspective, and among those most affected.
And something important here: actual codified international law post-WWII, already on the books, signed by all major parties inclusive of the P5 and most others, if actually utilized, would make R2P superfluous.
The response to WWII atrocities prescribed an ability to legally intervene when there was proof of atrocity in the future. These include (and as included in the chapter on R2P and criminal definitions by Tarun Chhabra and Jeremy B. Zucker in the aforementioned OUP book on R2P): Article Six of the Nuremburg Charter (1945), the International Criminal Code as codified by the International Law Commission (ILC) and accepted by UN resolution (later integrated into the Draft Code of Offences Against the Peace and Security of Mankind in 1954), The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention) in 1948, the Geneva Conventions (1929 and 1949), and updated Draft Codes in 1994 and 1996, and draft statute for the International Criminal Court.
The issue here is and will always be political will. Until such time as it is in the interests of the international community, and particularly the P5 of the UN Security Council, and/or regional treaty organizations, actually decide that intervention is specifically in their best interests, Syria will continue to remain a mire of violence, atrocity, and crimes which by every shred of documentary evidence is consistent with the very triggers post-WWII international law was meant to address.
Even Marie Colvin, again, the internationally respected journalist for The Sunday Times, who was this generation's Martha Gellhorn, said Syria was the most brutal war she had ever covered. Coming from her, that means something. It's about time we deal with international crisis with more than the powerlessness of platitudes.