At the end of a century of violence, the international community decisively intervened in East Timor in 1999 to prevent atrocities occurring at the hand of Indonesian militias. Conducting the first successful intervention after Rwanda and Srebrenica in the same decade, Kofi Annan confidently urged the development of a new concept of sovereignty for the international community – one apportioning responsibility of the state to its people, and not the other way around. The doctrine of R2P was subsequently signed at the 2005 UN World Summit, creating a collective responsibility to prevent atrocity crimes by sanctioning intervention if the state could not, or would not, act.
Fast forward a decade, and the opposite seems true. Western policy-makers are unable to reach consensus on the crucial issues of today’s climate, and have seemingly laid the concept of humanitarian intervention to rest. While leaders may use the language of R2P on a regular basis, Assad crossed Obama’s ‘red line’ of August 2012 over chemical weapons and still survives, with the help of Russia, who intervened on his side to strengthen the hand of the man that allegedly utilised sarin gas to kill his people.
So did R2P die in Syrian sands? As with many things, the answer depends on perspective. R2P is a contradictory document – a messy conflagration of post-world war sovereignty and millennial cosmopolitan principles. Humanitarian intervention forms the third of two preceding pillars of R2P, which place the state as the first vanguard against acts of violence. The document’s fluidity has created an instance where both sides in Syria are implementing their vision of the same doctrine correctly: Russia is intervening to strengthening the state against the violence of organisations such as Islamic State, whereas American and Western interventionists argue that the state has long lost its legitimacy, and a political transition should be established.
These radically different visions of intervention across the international system means that the ‘interventionist’ third pillar of R2P can be useful as a barometer to test the current character and strength of the international community, and the prevalence of state interest. Humanitarian interventions such as the one in 1999 depend on a strong international community, united by consensus. And with Syria, this is clearly no longer the case.
In 2011 however, such a consensus was at play, albeit briefly. The security council voted with 10 in favour and five abstentions to establish a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, and authorised all necessary measures to protect civilians. When the situation in Libya then deteriorated, confidence in the interventionist principle was shaken.
This memory has both scuppered the idealistic traits of R2P and has shifted the consensus to when countries should intervene closer to divisive visions of national interest. And a reticent West has this memory reinforced by poor economic performance, leading to the subsequent rise of domestic political uncertainty that undercuts the strength of the current international order. These factors mean that states are re-asserting their desire to act alone, and shakes the bedrock upon which the collaborative vision of R2P can be conducted.
This is not a good thing. As foreign policy-makers generally trace their policies in relation to values and power politics of the international order, this uncertainty can lead to the ‘national interest’ as the primary benchmark for global interactions by secondary powers. This can lead to a less multilateral and more unilateral system; a norm that has previously led to misguided interventions over interests overseas, exemplified by incidents such as the 1956 Suez crisis.
Benedict Anderson’s idea of ‘imagined communities’, distinguished by neither falsity or genuineness but ‘the style of which they are imagined’, focused on nations. But the same could be said about the international community, that defensive thinking once again defines the content of its character. Shifting R2P’s ‘style of imagining’ away from the nation-state requires fixing the economic engine of the international system, silencing populism to inspire confident policy-making that reaches beyond past mistakes. At that point, the international community can become bolder, braver, and more collaborative.