New legal ‘norm’ in the background as turmoil grows

New legal ‘norm’ in the background as turmoil grows

As the newly consolidated international intervention in Libya draws to a close and the world wonders what is to happen next in Syria, a very familiar debate is being renewed: what can or should the world do when innocents are under dire threat?

On the one hand there is the argument in Turkey – as elsewhere – that concerned people and nations cannot stand by in the face of a dictator’s slaughter of his own people. On the other hand, there is the deeply felt suspicion that humanitarian intervention is just a pretext by the “West” to lay claim to resources – “neo-colonialism” by another name.

This is an old debate over national sovereignty, really going back to the 1948 United Nations convention on genocide when the world declared “never again” after the Nazi holocaust of World War II.

But, of course, we went on to utter similar words again after the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge, the Rwanda genocide and other massive atrocities. In 1999 the world did indeed intervene in Kosovo but the debate has never stopped as to whether that was justified. Iraq and Afghanistan are related to the debate, but were never really sold as strictly humanitarian interventions.

In the interim, a new international doctrine came into play in 2005. This was the concept of “Responsibility to Protect’” or “R2P” in diplomatic parlance. This sought, more or less, to shift the debate from one over of the “right” of the world to intervene to its “obligation” to intervene.
Libya was the first test. While many will argue the test has not really changed the argument, the fact is that this is the precedent that will now be used in arguing the case for further inventions, perhaps even next in Syria. Where will it lead us?

Which is I would recommend a new collection of essays produced by e-International Relations and available at It really summarizes the legal, diplomatic and moral tool kit that can be used. Or alternatively, that should be challenged in these perilous times.

Gareth Evans, president emeritus of the International Crisis Group, and in many ways the father of the R2P concept, argues it has worked and will be increasingly relevant: “maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to say ‘never again’ in the future without having to periodically look back… with a mixture of anger, incomprehension.”

Scholar Ramesh Thakur weighs in to cite the Libyan example as one of the United Nations successfully using the new R2P norm as a tool that reflects the legitimacy of “humanitarian military intervention” as a last resort.

Scholar Mary-Ellen O’Connell, however, poses an effective counter argument: that military intervention in Libya was launched before alternatives, including sanctions, had been given a chance to work. She also argues that tens of thousands of civilian deaths were in fact the result of the mission which was supposedly launched to protect them. Six other informed experts round out the collection.

As the number of perfect political storms and uprisings around Turkey grow in number and ferocity, this debate will only grow in intensity.
Whatever your own views are on R2P, don’t go into battle without being armed with this powerful background and set of arguments.