It wasn’t meant to be like this. In 2005, the United Nations approved a new doctrine called Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which placed an obligation on states to intervene when civilians faced slaughter. So how come we’re watching the massacre of children in Syria? A U.N. investigation found that civilians in Houla had been killed not just by shelling but by bands of men, armed with guns and knives, who slaughtered families, including 49 children, in their houses. The killers are believed to be shabiha, thugs loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. How much clearer could it be?
Sadly, little about R2P is clear any more. It was a policy born of bitter and painful failure, primarily in Rwanda, where as many as a million people were killed while the world dithered and did nothing. It’s a failure I remember well—I was living in Rwanda in 1994 when the genocide there started. Friends in the suburbs of Kigali called to ask me for help, but, confronted by machete-wielding thugs on roadblocks, I was impotent, unable to rescue them. I could not even offer the comfort that international help was on its way.
But now R2P has become a victim of its own success. Last March, NATO intervened to prevent slaughter in Libya. I was in Benghazi, the largest city in eastern Libya, and the center of the revolution against Colonel Gaddafi. I had spent several weeks on the chaotic frontline, reporting on the enthusiastic but incompetent rebels who would shoot wildly into the air and then rapidly retreat in the face of the government advance. By then I had learned a lot about Gaddafi’s regime, including that 1,270 prisoners had been gunned down in a prison courtyard in 1996, and many Libyans still didn’t know the fate of relatives who had been imprisoned years earlier. When Colonel Gaddafi threatened to hunt down his enemies “zenga zenga,” alleyway by alleyway, I had no doubt that, cornered and angry, like a trapped rattlesnake, he would kill as many people as he felt necessary to regain power in the east. So when the U.N. Security Council passed the resolution allowing intervention, and the first NATO bombers attacked a column of Gaddafi’s tanks heading into Benghazi, I—like the population of the town, who had risen against Gaddafi a month earlier—was relieved.
Yet U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, allowing for the use of “all necessary measures” to save civilians, immediately ran into problems. The Russians, who abstained rather than using their veto, were horrified to see how quickly R2P morphed into regime change. NATO maintained a fiction that overthrowing Gaddafi not was their aim, but they targeted his Bab Al Aziziyah compound in Tripoli and other places where their intelligence said the leadership might be staying, weakening his regime until he was driven from power last August. It’s arguable that ousting Gaddafi was the only way to protect civilians, and it was inevitably going to be a fight to the death—he had said at the beginning of the revolution, “I shall die a martyr in the end.” But from a diplomatic perspective, Resolution 1973 was stretched to breaking point, and that has had implications far beyond Libya.
The problem is that if you use force to protect civilians from their own government, the chances of negotiation rapidly recede. The Russians were furious, not because they harbored any special fondness for the Guide (as Gaddafi liked to be known) but because of the precedent it set. “Such ‘exemplary models’ should be excluded from world practice once and for all,” said the Russian Foreign Minstry in a statement. They will not let such a resolution through the Security Council again. The Chinese agree—nothing irks them more than the idea that Western countries can use the U.N. to legitimize the overthrow of sovereign governments, however cruel.
Syrians, then, are paying the price for Libyans’ freedom. The intervention also demonstrates the limits to the R2P doctrine itself. A reasonably coherent rebel leadership, calling itself the National Transitional Council, emerged early in the Libyan conflict, so NATO knew who to liaise with. Most of the fighting took place along a single coastal strip, and Gaddafi’s forces, while better trained and equipped than the rebels, were no match for NATO airpower. In Syria, rebel forces are divided and the conflict is growing more multifaceted and messy. Western governments fear that jihadis, aligned with Al Qaeda, are increasingly active in the Syrian opposition. Many Syrians wanted an uprising to overthrow dictatorship, just as they had seen in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, but now the conflict is turning into a sectarian struggle between Sunnis and Shias, with Gulf countries supporting the former and Iran the latter.
So are the children of Houla and other towns condemned to die as we look on? The best hope is that the Russians might agree to persuade their protégé, President Assad, to allow the establishment of a “safe zone” on the Turkish and Jordanian borders to provide some relief for civilians. But without Russian pressure, Western countries are reduced to expelling ambassadors and hoping that economic sanctions will bring about the collapse of the regime. Even if it does, what then? Even Libya, which seems so simple in comparison to Syria, is unstable and violent in the aftermath of 42 years of dictatorship and a year of revolution. Syria could fragment even more violently.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who had previously campaigned against genocide in Darfur, and Samantha Power, President’s Obama’s special assistant, who wrote a book on the subject, were instrumental in persuading the president and the secretary of state that intervening in Libya was the right thing to do. President Obama has said that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” But one year on, it seems unlikely that such intervention will be contemplated again. Libyans may be the sole beneficiaries of a doctrine that died before coming of age.