LONDON – As civilians in the Syrian city of Aleppo are battered by airstrikes, ground offensives and shelling, what has happened to the world’s responsibility to protect populations under threat?
The Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Security Council were established after World War II to maintain peace and protect people in conflict zones.
But a 21st-century U.N. doctrine called Responsibility to Protect (R2P), set up by the world body’s member states to prevent mass killings, has only had limited success.
Although formalized in 2005, R2P came about largely in response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which extremist Hutu militiamen slaughtered some 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The doctrine also stemmed from a desire to prevent a recurrence of atrocities like the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serb forces in the town of Srebrenica.
It placed the onus on the international community to “use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means” to protect populations from crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
Past examples include NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 as a means to protect the people of Kosovo and the U.N.’s administration of East Timor as Indonesian troops departed, experts say.
But now, R2P is a merely a “high moral aspiration” that has “floundered” on the complex realities of warfare today, according to Paddy Ashdown, a British lawmaker who served as high representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina between 2002 and 2006.
Ashdown, who was among Western politicians to call for military intervention in the Bosnian war in the 1990s, said the world has become reluctant to get involved in messy, protracted conflicts.
“R2P has diminished from a high hope into an interesting collection of words lying on the table,” Ashdown said.
Ashdown, a former leader of the British opposition Liberal Democrats party, spokes to the Thomson Reuters Foundation for a short film entitled “Responsibility to Protect?,” which launched Tuesday.
Conflict situations since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 have shown the West to be incapable of coming up with sound intervention strategies that protect civilians, Ashdown said.
In Libya, eight years later, the United States, Britain and their allies were criticized for failing to foster peace after the removal of Moammar Gadhafi from power.
The Islamic State group took over the former leader’s home city of Sirte a year ago as militants profited from the chaos that followed his death in 2011.
A deepening rift between Russia and the West, made worse by the Ukraine crisis in 2014, has left the U.N. Security Council deadlocked in efforts to foster peace in Syria, where Russia backs the government of President Bashar Assad.
“Whenever the world has been challenged to enact for instance in Libya, or particularly in Syria — we’ve failed to come up to the mark,” Ashdown said.
Syria’s war erupted in 2011 after a popular uprising against the Assad family’s more than four-decade rule that was inspired by the Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East.
The war, pitting rebels mostly from Syria’s Sunni majority against a minority rule rooted in Assad’s Alawite community, has killed more than 300,000 people. Half the population has been displaced and much of urban Syria has become a wasteland.
Western powers say Syria’s government and its Russian allies are guilty of war crimes for targeting civilians, aid deliveries and hospitals. Moscow and Damascus say they target only militants and deny they have hit hospitals.
“Syria is a case that’s begging for ‘responsibility to protect’ and no one is showing any responsibility whatever,” said Michael Ignatieff, academic and specialist on humanitarian intervention.
“So it’s as relevant as ever, normatively, morally, in terms of our conscience, but it is a dead letter internationally,” Ignatieff said.
One problem is that R2P stems from a 19th-century concept of international relations that states should intervene “when a country is unable or unwilling to protect its own population,” said Ghassan Salame, a former senior adviser to the U.N. secretary-general.
“But R2P has also suffered from a general decline of the ideological impact of the West on the rest of the world,” Salame said in an interview.
Trust in the West’s ability to resolve conflicts and build peace took a nose dive after R2P was invoked in Libya in 2011 to stop Gadhafi killing his own people, Salame and other experts said.
In March 2011, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution endorsing military action to protect civilians against Gadhafi’s forces.
But after the Libyan leader’s overthrow and death, the country became mired in a slow-burn civil war between two rival governments, one in Tripoli and one in the east.
“In Libya we went in, we did the job . . . (then) we walked away instead of creating a network including for instance Turkey which would have helped to reconstruct a peace in Libya. It’s a bloody mess,” Ashdown said.
“By the way, so is Iraq,” he added.
Previous moves by the United States to depose governments or leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq during the presidency of George W. Bush, and, under President Barack Obama in Libya, are highly problematic for Responsibility to Protect, Salame said.
“This idea of regime change, that can be done clinically without touching the state structure, or without deconstruction of state society is, I hope, buried once and for all,” Salame said.
After two failed cease-fire agreements between the United States and Russia to end the fighting in Aleppo, a new round of talks was set up in Geneva this month to include Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which support Syrian opposition groups.
The Syria conflict highlights just how complex conflicts have become.
“We do not live in a world, in which killing and dying remain safely confined within a sovereign state,” Ignatieff said, pointing to the refugee crisis in Europe stemming from war and instability in the Middle East.
“Look at Syria, it’s not just a lot of Syrians dying. It’s decisively effected the stability and cohesion of Europe,” the academic said.
But when it comes to establishing lasting peace, prevention is better than cure, the three experts said — which might prove important advice for the incoming U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres.
“I think he has to persuade the world that diplomacy has a bigger part to play in peace as high explosive does,” Ashdown said.
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