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Currently, large populations in Syria and Myanmar are facing crimes such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. Under the domain of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), if a country is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens, the international community has the responsibility to protect those citizens facing the crimes of mass atrocities. The third and most effective pillar of the principle includes military intervention under the authorization of the Security Council, something several scholars and heads of states believe is vital to responding to these situations.

This paper aims to evaluate the principle of R2P by recognizing its emergence as a concept, while examining its current use in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The paper also aims to determine why Security Council Member states have not been able to uphold their responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities in Syria and Myanmar.

On one hand, the principle of R2P is being hailed as a success due to the number of times it has been cited in resolutions and UNSC deliberations. However, on the other hand, the principle in practice has been regularly questioned and criticized in the Security Council as it involves non-consensual foreign military intervention. Instances such as Libya have persuaded Russia and China to refrain from adopting any R2P-military resolutions in response to Syria and Myanmar, leaving populations in those regions exposed to horrific crimes.

Emergence of R2P

Following the severe atrocities of Rwanda and Srebrenica in 1994 and 1995, as well as the perceived sovereignty violations of the NATO military intervention in Kosovo, Kofi Annan, then Assistant Secretary-General, realized the international community’s failure in ensuring human protection and planned to bring the matter to global attention. He warned that the UN risked discrediting itself as it failed to respond to catastrophes such as Rwanda and Srebrenica, and he challenged member states to agree on a legal and political framework for collective international response.

In 2000, Annan (now as UN Secretary-General) wrote the report “We the Peoples” addressing the UN’s role in the 21st century and posing his infamous question: “if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”. Set up by the Canadian Government to answer Annan’s question, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) released a report that laid the foundations for the principle of R2P; it addressed the conditions required for an external state’s involvement either through humanitarian aid or military intervention.

Moving forward, R2P was recognized and (unanimously) endorsed by the UN General Assembly in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document paragraphs 138, 139. In 2009, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon released a report on implementing the Responsibility to Protect which set the direction of the principle and proposed the three-pillar approach: (Paragraph form?) Pillar 1 – Every state has the Responsibility to Protect its populations from the four mass atrocity crimes. Pillar 2 – The wider international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility. Pillar 3 – If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the UN Charter.

Since the initial report, the SG has published an annual report addressing the development and progress of R2P. These reports are followed by a debate in the UN General Assembly which ensures that the issue is regularly discussed about and that there is continual global attention surrounding it. Additionally, since its establishment as a doctrine, the UNSC has invoked R2P in 67 resolutions since 2006 and the principle has been consistently used by various states during times of intra-state conflict.

The international community was ill-prepared/unprepared to respond to crimes of mass atrocities considering the inaction in the 1990s as well as the acrimonious debates surrounding sovereignty and human rights. However, the adoption of this doctrine has shifted the discussion from sovereignty and human rights to recognizing the different ways states can work together to protect civilians. With R2P, states now have a framework for employing measures such as mediation, economic sanctions and military intervention to prevent atrocity crimes and to protect civilians from their occurrence. Francis Deng, former UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, stated that “R2P is one of the most powerful and promising innovations on the international scene”.

As a concept, the consistent use of R2P language in UNSC deliberations and speeches is a cause for celebration. In fact, Alex Bellamy argues that R2P’s language has led to a behavioural change in the way international society responds to mass killing and that states are in a better position to respond in times of crises. However, in practice, the principle has been heavily criticized by several states and has been the subject of tense debate in the international community for the last 13 years.

R2P in Practice

Following its establishment, the principle of R2P has been invoked numerous times in response to crises and conflicts around the world. Situations in Cote D’Ivoire (2011) and Libya (2011) demanded foreign military interference to protect civilians in the regions. The actions taken in the SC-authorized Libyan operation heavily influenced the positions/rhetoric of Russia and China in regards to R2P. At its infancy, Russia and China were in favour of the principle and were not opposed to military intervention to protect civilians of another state. However, with the outcome of Libya, they are much more reluctant to pursue military intervention in the name of R2P and have stood as a blockade in the Security Council in response to the current crimes occurring in Syria and Myanmar.

Libya (2011)

In mid-February 2011, violent protests and uprisings erupted across Libya. In a week, insurgents seized control of several areas in the eastern part of the country, around Benghazi, as well as in the western side near Misrata. Gaddafi’s regime swiftly moved to militarily quash the rebellion, warning of the possibility of civil war. On the international stage, several organizations immediately convened meetings to discuss the Libyan situation. Deliberations in the Security Council yielded two important resolutions: Resolution 1970, 1973.

Resolution 1970 recognized the UNSC’s responsibility to protect while demanding an end to hostilities in the region and establishing an arms embargo, a travel ban and an asset freeze in the region. Although it was passed on 26th February, the motions were scrapped and Resolution 1973 was in the works. On March 27th, the UNSC passed Resolution 1973 with 10 votes in favour and 5 Abstentions (Russia, China, India, Germany, Brazil); It authorized the council to take “all necessary measures…to protect civilians” in Libya, including use of military forces. The resolution included the provisions mentioned in Resolution 1970 as well as the establishment of a no-fly zone in the region.

Two weeks after the adoption of the resolution, NATO aircraft began striking military forces in Libya with the aim to protect Libyan citizens and degrade the Gaddafi regime’s capability to resist the no-fly zone. This was the first use of military intervention in the na
me of R2P without the consent of the host government. (Cote D’Ivoire was the first to receive military forces under R2P, however, this was requested by the Cote D’Ivoire government.)

Advocates of the operation stated that the situation in Benghazi was deteriorating, with civilians at risk of massacre by pro-Gaddafi forces and it was the responsibility of the international community to protect the civilians in the region as they were being neglected/attacked (?) by their own government. However, the way in which NATO pushed out the Gaddafi regime was viewed by many states as a gross mishandling of the operation’s mandate—which was to be focused solely on the protection of civilians. In fact, just three days after airstrikes began, Russia, China and India called for an immediate ceasefire in the region as they claimed that NATO had abused the terms of its mandate and was instead using R2P to push for regime change. Russia and the Communist bloc accused NATO of pursuing other agendas that were imperialistic in nature and not humanitarian or democratic.

In an interview, a senior Chinese diplomat stated that “the Security Council resolution has been used as a blank check, which was taken full advantage of by the Western states to overthrow the Gaddafi administration”. The fear of Western domination in the Middle East has called into question the original intention of R2P.

The fear of forceful regime change and Western neo-imperialism has persuaded Russia, China and its allies to oppose any similar military responses to mass atrocity crimes in the future. This is evident in the deadlock we currently witness in the Security Council, where Russia and China continually invoke their veto powers to prevent Western presence in the Middle East. This has called into question the status of R2P as a norm in international politics. Is it simply a tool for Western states to justify foreign intervention pursuant to personal/national interests?

The stalemate in the Security Council as a result of the Libyan intervention has left the United Nations paralyzed especially in response to the crimes occurring in Syria and Myanmar where millions are facing death or displacement. This, in the end, weakens the effectiveness of R2P as a norm in international politics.

Syria (2011-Present)

As the international community stood as a bystander in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the same is in play today. With R2P and ‘maintenance of peace and security’ as part of its core mandate, the Security Council and its members are failing. Member states are unable to reach to a consensus and respond to the mass atrocity crimes that have been occurring in Syria for the last 7 years.

The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (COI) has reported that the Syrian government has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the use of chemical weapons on civilians. The war has taken the lives of over 465,000 individuals, with 5.5 million Syrian refugees and 6.1 million IDPs. Yet, the UNSC has been deadlocked over any attempt to provide meaningful intervention. Since 2011, Russia has vetoed 11 Syrian-related resolutions. China has largely voted in agreement with Russia, vetoing 6 of these 11 resolutions, while abstaining on the other 5. The resolutions that have passed have been limited in scope, pertaining primarily to ceasefires and access for humanitarian aid, which has been inadequate to provide for the estimated 13 million people in need of assistance.

The concerns arising from foreign interference in Libya have influenced Russian and Chinese decisions when dealing with the current situations in Syria, however, other personal agendas such as Russia’s geopolitical interests and China’s conservative stance in IR have also played a key role in the ‘veto’ decisions.

Although Russia has consistently claimed that Libya and the US Invasion of Iraq are key to their objections in the Security Council, it is clear that their own personal interests have also driven their decisions in the Council. Russia has its own military, economic and political interests that rest on keeping Assad’s regime in power. Per Connolly and Sendstad, Syria has been a test ground for Russia to showcase its arms package to the world in the hopes that it would boost its own sales. Militarily, Russia uses a naval facility in Tartus, Syria which it has sanctioned to make into a permanent facility. And in terms of its political interests, Russia stands to lose a strong ally and a considerable influence in the Middle East if Assad’s regime were to be replaced. If Russia were to allow a SC-authorized operation in Syria (in the name of R2P), NATO forces could potentially topple the regime and replace it with a pro-Western/democratic one. Therefore, Russia has vetoed all resolutions invoking the third pillar of R2P??.

Similar to Russia, China has also referenced the mishandling of Libya while justifying its position on Syria. However, Chinese decisions regarding the vetoes in the Security Council also rest on their conservative stance surrounding foreign intervention.

The preamble of the Chinese constitution states that “China adheres to an independent foreign policy as well as to the five principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs…”. This suggests that China’s foreign policy directly opposes the third pillar of R2P (foreign military intervention). Chinese diplomats believe that military intervention in Syria (and Myanmar) could potentially set a bad precedent in regards to infringing on a state’s sovereignty. Although they have supported Syrian resolutions that pushed for humanitarian aid, they remain strongly opposed to military intervention in Syria. They hope to tackle the crisis while adhering to their own foreign policy aim of non-intervention. Additionally, China has been developing a strong partnership with Russia to oppose US’ status as a hegemon. Russia and China hope to create a balance in the international system and vetoing resolutions to avoid further US influence in the Middle East stands to benefit the two superpowers.

Myanmar (2016-2017)

Security forces in Myanmar have committed severe crimes against humanity on the Rohingya community. From 25 August to 24 September, at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in attacks, as per Médecins Sans Frontières estimates. Since the breakout of the crisis, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state to find refuge in Bangladesh.

Myanmar’s security forces pose (posed?) an existential threat to the Rohingya population. The UN and Amnesty International, a human rights group, have labelled the military crackdown on the Rohingya community as crimes against humanity and have said that the military had made the civilians a target of “a systematic campaign of violence”. Since the break of the crisis, countries such as the United States and Malaysia have condemned the actions of the Myanmar government while UN bodies such as the General Assembly and Human Rights Council have proposed solutions such as a Fact Finding Mission and a supervisory refugee organization. Myanmar’s government continually denied access to the UN until April 2nd, 2018, when it finally agreed to permit a visit from senior officials at the UNSC. This is a step forward in the UN’s investigatory efforts into the crisis, however, this visit has only been secured 18 months after the initial crackdown of the security forces.

The government of Myanmar has not only manifestly failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect the Rohingya community, it also bears the primary responsibility for the ongoing commission of mass atrocity crimes. With 18 months
of deliberations, the UNSC has failed to implement any resolutions in response to the crimes against humanity in Myanmar. The failure to adopt resolutions is once again rooted in the UNSC deadlock caused by Russian and Chinese vetoes. The reasons to these vetoes were illustrated in the previous section of the research paper which suggests that Myanmar is a shadow case to the topic at hand (???).


Today, mass atrocity crimes are being committed around the world and states have a responsibility to protect civilians as agreed upon in the 2005 World Summit. Veto powers and personal agendas of member states in the UNSC are hindering any possible action against these crimes. Thus, the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect is diminishing in its value as a norm as countries are unable to invoke the doctrine for the protection of civilians. The stalemate in the council must be resolved either through reform of veto power or actions by other UN bodies. Add more policy proposals and conclude.

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