The recent violence in Syria continues to shock. Thousands of civilians have been killed by their own government. Leaders are supposed to protect their citizens, not bombard them. Attempts by the international community have not changed the situation. Neither the United Nations nor the Arab League has been able to persuade President Assad to stop the assaults. He seems impervious to any form of outside intervention, taking advantage of his privileged relations with Russia and China to divide the international community.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was designed to be a turning point in international relations. States would no longer be able to hide behind their sovereignty or domaine reservé. Human security was to trump state security; individual safety was more important than raison d’etat. When a state was unable or unwilling to take care of those on its territory, other states would be allowed to step in to fill the vacuum.
What happened? United Nations Security Resolution 1973 (March 2011) called for foreign intervention to protect threatened populations in Libya. R2P was finally going to function. But, instead of merely protecting the citizens of Benghazi, NATO and French forces helped rebels overthrow Mouammar Kadhafi. China and Russia, which had abstained rather than veto the Resolution, quickly realized that R2P had been used for regime change. They now block all efforts for intervention to protect civilians in Syria to stop a precedent that could eventually turn against them.
In another irony of history, “humanitarian intervention” in Libya may be the last time the international community agrees to legitimize violent interference in the internal affairs of a country. While we watch with horror the unfolding events in Syria, we should remember the false euphoria when the rebels entered Tripoli armed by NATO and the French.
“Do something” is easy to say. And no one feels comfortable watching the scenes of destruction in Homs on the evening news. But actions have their consequences, as even a non-physicist understands. By overstepping the mandate in Libya, NATO and France have paralyzed legitimate intervention and perhaps sounded the death bell for R2P, so ardently defended by the French Bernard Kouchner and Professor Mario Bettati among others.