Protestors demand an end to lawlessness in Tripoli, Libya, December 2011. (UN Photo/Iason Foounten)
The international community’s failure to respond in a timely and decisive fashion to the crisis in Syria has been widely described as a failure of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). It is not hard to see why: the UN Security Council has fallen well short of adopting “timely and decisive” measures as approximately 120,000 people have been killed and close to nine million displaced. Syria thus stands as a test for RtoP that most commentators believe it has failed.
One of the principal explanations for this apparent failure is the political fallout from the NATO-led intervention in Libya.
- The Security Council’s failure to adopt a timely and decisive response to the situation in Syria is often attributed to the political backlash from NATO’s controversial intervention in Libya.
- Voting patterns and statements offered in the Council’s Syria debates as well as the Council’s wider practice since 2011 provide little evidence of a direct link between the two cases.
- The Council’s failure on Syria more likely stems from complexities and geopolitics associated with the Syrian case itself.
According to Gareth Evans, one of RtoP’s progenitors, “Consensus [about RtoP] has simply evaporated in a welter of recrimination about how the NATO-led implementation of the Council’s Libya mandate…was actually carried out. We have to frankly recognize that there has been some infection of the whole RtoP concept by the perception, accurate or otherwise, that the civilian protection mandate granted by the Council was manifestly exceeded by that military operation.”
Has the “infection” of RtoP stymied the chances of consensus on Syria? Would the Security Council’s response to Syria have been different without Libya and RtoP? Despite the ubiquity of the association between Libya and Syria in public commentary, evidence of a clear link between the two cases is surprisingly thin.
First, Russian and Chinese explanations of their own (shifting) positions on Syria have not been consistent in emphasizing the legacy of Libya. In fact, China has yet to raise Libya in its formal comments on Syria addressed to the Security Council. The place of Libya in Russian thinking on Syria has been inconsistent at best. In explaining its first veto on a draft Syria resolution, in October 2011, Russia railed against NATO’s actions in Libya but added a series of other, pragmatic arguments to support its case. Five months later, Russia vetoed a second resolution on Syria but made no reference to Libya in explaining its position. Then, as the previously endorsed Annan-plan unraveled later in 2012, Russia cast a third veto and ramped up the rhetoric on Libya to new heights.