Libyan Case a Red Herring in Syria Dilemma

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. 

Key Conclusions

  • 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. 

Key Global Events to Watch in January

At the start of every month, the Global Observatory posts a list of key upcoming meetings and events that have implications for global affairs.



Peace & Security

      • January 4: South Sudan Peace Talks, Addis Ababa
        Formal negotiations between the South Sudanese government and rebels begin after weeks of violence left over 1,000 dead and cut South Sudan’s oil output. The regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development is mediating the peace talks as fighting continues to displace hundreds of thousands in the state of Bor, 9,000 of whom have taken refuge in the UN base there. The first two items on the talks’ agenda are cessation of hostilities and the question of detainees. Western powers hope the talks can prevent further ethnic violence and outright civil war in the world’s newest country.
      • January 13: ICC Trial of Kenyan DP Ruto Resumes, The Hague
        The case against Deputy President William Ruto and a former journalist, Joshua arap Sang, for their involvement in the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya has been delayed several times over the last months because some of more than 30 witnesses for the prosecution decided against testifying. Defense lawyers have claimed the prosecution has no case and is stalling while it coaches witnesses, whereas the prosecution has said its witnesses have been intimidated into not testifying or reversing testimonies after threats. Last month, Ruto applied to be absent from the court proceedings to tend to his political duties, but the ICC denied the application because it came too late.
      • January 14-15: Kuwait II Donors’ Conference for Syria, Kuwait City
        Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon chairs the Kuwait II Donors’ conference, where more than 60 states have been invited to contribute to the fund to ameliorate the conflict in Syria. Additionally, surrounding countries, discuss the hosting of Syrian refugees—over 2 million people have fled Syria—and plans moving forward. $1.5 billion was raised in Kuwait last January.
      • January 21: Nuclear Watchdog Meets with Iran, Tehran
        Following an initial meeting on December 11, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iranian government continue discussions to review progress implementing the IAEA-Iran cooperation pact. The nuclear watchdog visited the reactor site in Arak last month and plans to discuss access to two others. Although the IAEA-Iran deal is separate from the negotiations between the the G5+1 and Iran, continued cooperation with IAEA is central to easing the crippling sanctions on the country. 

In Egypt’s New Constitution, Are Women Equal Citizens?

Two women search for their names at a polling station in al-Mahalla, Egypt, May 23, 2012. (credit: Nehal El-Sherif/Flickr)

Since its approval on December 1, 2013 by the 50-member commission, the revised Egyptian draft constitution has been dissected and analyzed from practically every angle. Some were extolling its new virtues and congratulating its victors, while others were pointing to its losers and lamenting its failings. The consolidation of the military’s role in politics at the expense of the rule of law and civilian oversight has attracted the most attention, and been the subject of much controversy.

For the female half of the Egyptian population, the new constitution, despite its shortcomings, gives cause for sober celebration, in terms of guaranteeing women’s fundamental rights and personal freedoms. 

In the retrospective and lofty language of the preamble, equal citizenship, the rule of law, and non-discrimination are cited as the foundations on which the new constitution rests. While affirming that the principles of sharia remain the main source of legislation, the introductory text states that the constitution “will be consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Egypt participated in its drafting and ratified.” In the last sentence of the preamble, the feminine form of the word “citizens” is fronted before the masculine one when addressing the people of Egypt to whom, it is stated, the constitution is dedicated.

In the body of the text, the new charter, under several provisions, explicitly grants women individual rights that were either excised from or circumscribed in the 2012 constitution. By virtue of article 6, Egyptian women married to a foreigner can henceforth bestow their nationality to their offspring, thus consecrating one of the tenants of equal citizenship mentioned above, and for which women rights organizations have fought hard. Nationality, the article states: the right of a person born to an Egyptian father or an Egyptian mother. The legal recognition of that person and the granting of official documents proving that person’s personal details are rights guaranteed and regulated by law. The law shall determine the conditions for acquiring nationality.

China’s Controversial Air Defense Zone Portends Problems, or Opportunities

This map shows a detail of the Air Defense Identification Zones claimed by Japan, South Korea, and China (approximate).

Much has been made of China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea on November 23, as it adds another dimension to already complicated territorial disputes in the region. Although over 20 countries maintain ADIZs, China’s is problematic because this new zone overlaps with those of its neighbors, and because China is insisting that aircraft comply with its rules regardless of whether they intend to enter Chinese airspace—and this includes military aircraft. 

Equally problematic has been the vagaries of the international response. After the US condemned the move and sent B-52 bombers through the zone to illustrate its position, government authorities instructed American civilian airlines to comply with the zone in the interest of safety. Japan and South Korea followed suit with military flights of their own, but Japan has ordered its civilian airlines to ignore the zone, raising the dangerous possibility that Chinese fighter jets may intercept and escort the hundreds of flights from Japan to China. 

ADIZs are not governed by an international treaty or convention, and the risks of not having one are increasing. It is therefore incumbent on states that have declared ADIZs to begin discussions towards a set of standards that govern the act of declaring and the degree of authority exercised within an ADIZ. Otherwise, more states could begin to declare overlapping ADIZs, as South Korea did following the Chinese declaration, which complicated the protocols of interception, since both parties would claim the authority to escort the other. Also, the declarations of China and South Korea exacerbate ambiguities in international practice following the political decision by a country not to recognize another state’s authority in overlapping ADIZs. 

And speculation is growing that China may declare other ADIZs, including the South China Sea. This, of course, would be decidedly more provocative than the East China Sea, since no South China Sea state currently maintains an ADIZ. However, the Chinese declaration may cause others to do so, creating a pretext for a Chinese response.

Will Iran’s New Support of Human Rights Go Deeper Than Rhetoric?

Mohammad Khazaee, Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN, addresses a Security Council meeting. (credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine, 2010)

It is no secret that Iran has an image problem in the international arena. As part of a comprehensive campaign to regain credibility and improve its reputation on the world stage, the country is adopting a new approach to diplomacy that seems to extend well beyond the nuclear dossier. But President Rouhani’s attempts to remake the country’s foreign policy since his election last June have met with much suspicion, as many outside Iran fear that this leopard can’t change its spots. 

Delegates in the UN General Assembly have been noticing a turnaround in the way that the country’s representatives engage with social, humanitarian, and human rights issues. In October, observers were taken aback by the palpable softening of Iran's tone1 in the delegate’s reaction to the latest report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran. In its statement, the Iranian representative to the Third Committee sounded conciliatory as she declared that “Iran emphasizes the need to use the momentum engendered by this election [of President Rouhani] to adopt a new and constructive approach by all relevant parties towards cooperation and dialogue for the promotion and protection of all human rights” adding that the “government does not claim that the situation of human rights within the country is perfect.”

In November, the same tone was apparent in the response of the Iranian Permanent Representative Mohammad Khazaee to the resolution presented by Canada on “the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Though he still rejected the country-specific nature of the resolution—which Canada puts forward yearly—characterizing it as “politicized” and “subjective,” he also noted the country’s “long term approach,” “genuine measures,” and “constructive engagement” to safeguard all human rights, signaling future improvements.

However, the clearest evidence of this new approach is perhaps the effort to present the resolution, “A World Against Violent Extremism” to the General Assembly—to be voted on this week. Iran, traditionally perceived as a spoiler on humanitarian and human rights issues, has untypically chosen to be a main sponsor of a resolution attempting to build consensus around the subjects of violence and extremism.

Despite the fact that resolutions such as these have a mostly symbolic value, they are an indication that the new Iranian president has launched a wide-ranging diplomatic campaign attempting to change perceptions in areas such as human rights, humanitarian issues, and the culture of peace, which fall under the Third Committee of the General Assembly. In fact, the Permanent Representative of Iran has been personally invested in dozens of démarches—that is, hours and hours of discussions with other permanent representatives. 

How Humanitarians Protect Populations Against Mass Atrocities (With Limits)

Humanitarian organizations can sometimes play a critical role in keeping people alive when populations are subjected to genocide and mass atrocities. For example, in Darfur, Sudan, international humanitarians and their local partners protected around two million civilians displaced by mass atrocities committed by Sudanese government forces and their allies, the now notorious Janjaweed militia, in 2003-4. So effective was the humanitarian response to the crisis in Darfur that by 2005, the region’s overall mortality rate had fallen to pre-war levels.1

When the storm of mass atrocities breaks, humanitarian agencies are often the only international presence on the ground. This was certainly true of Darfur, of Sri Lanka five years later, and of Syria as I write. But the relationship between humanitarian action, atrocity prevention, and the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) has been fraught with difficulty. This piece briefly explores why and what can be done about it.

Key Conclusions

  • Whether it is acknowledged or not, humanitarian action can often make a positive contribution to the protection of populations from genocide and mass atrocities.
  • Humanitarians have been reluctant to embrace RtoP for a number of reasons, not least differences of principle, concerns about access and local cooperation, and fears that controversial political concepts might make humanitarian work more difficult—and dangerous.
  • Putting atrocity prevention and protection work and humanitarian action into different policy silos has not always delivered good policy.
  • Progress should be based on respect for humanitarian principles, recognition of the preventive and protective effects of work already undertaken, and acknowledgment of the fact that it is for individual organizations themselves to judge how they relate to the goals of RtoP and atrocity prevention.


Humanitarians help reduce the vulnerability of populations to mass atrocity crimes in many different ways. Most obviously, by targeting aid at especially vulnerable groups or—more controversially—at groups that might cause harm to others as part of their strategy for coping with the terrible situations they find themselves in. Other strategies focus on reducing exposure to threat, providing paid work to reduce the need to adopt risky coping strategies (as well as reducing competition for resources), reducing incentives for joining armed groups, and designing camps to maximize safety and minimize risk.

Can Machines Learn to Predict a Violent Conflict?

For at least the last two decades, there have been calls within the United Nations to develop robust, accurate, and effective early warning systems for conflict prevention. Indeed, as recently as September 2011, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Security Council reiterated this need in their report “Preventative Diplomacy: Delivering Results.” The president of the Security Council at the time stated that a “key component…of a comprehensive conflict prevention strategy include[s] early warning [mechanisms].” The need for comprehensive early warning systems to analyze and disseminate data on sociopolitical and armed conflict dynamics within the UN system is well established. 

Yet one of the main operational challenges to early warning is clear: how to aggregate incoming information and data to derive actionable intelligence on an emerging situation. Often (but not always), incoming data is highly qualitative, which can place strains on the limited capacity of international organizations (IOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In addition, quantitative data is often not collected in a way that can easily be fed into a larger system. Organizations can find it too resource-intensive to clean, process, and analyze the data, thus limiting the type and volume of data being looked at. 

One way to overcome these resource constraints is to create tools that can automate the processing and analysis of quantitative data. Machine learning and data science seems a natural fit to improve this process. Data science is a multidisciplinary field that applies a mix of mathematics, statistics, computer science, data modeling and visualization, graphic design and hacking, as well as specific subject area expertise. Machine learning is a branch of computer science that leverages algorithms, or a set of step-by-step computer procedures, to perform actions without explicitly being programmed to. Machine learning has been used by a wide variety of private sector organizations for things like targeting user recommendations, detecting fraud and identity theft, and ad optimization. 

Automated early warning systems can help NGOs and IOs in a number of ways. They can help organizations develop an evidence base to create the political will to do preventative work to intervene or mitigate negative effects of large-scale conflict as tensions ramp up. In the case of predicting conflict, organizations can use early warning risk assessments for better planning and try to target non-conflict interventions that have conflict-mitigating knock-on effects in high-risk areas. 

Where is the Regional Cooperation in Addressing Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis?

During a short but intensive stay in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, I had the opportunity to elicit views and first-hand accounts from a variety of actors—government officials, international humanitarian and development actors, civil society organizations, and academics and experts—on the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis, and, more specifically, on what opportunities they saw for greater regional cooperation to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria and beyond. 

Most of the people I spoke with were rather pessimistic at this time. In fact, one major takeaway from the multiple interviews was an overwhelming sense that, rather than having a sobering effect bringing regional players together, the Syrian conflict and its spillover in neighboring states is deepening antagonisms and exacerbating regional power politics. 

Yet, narrow areas of converging interests could be identified that, if properly exploited, could enhance regional cooperation in partly addressing the human impact of the civil war.

Key Conclusions

  • The direct humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis—especially massive refugee flows—risk further destabilizing an already volatile region while introducing demographic changes that might have long-term regional implications.
  • Despite the regional nature of the crisis—or maybe because of it—there is little room for concerted regional action to address the growing humanitarian crisis. At this point in time, Middle Eastern states seem indeed mostly driven by self-interest and real or perceived “existential” threats.
  • Limited areas of convergence and mutual interest can be found among refugee-hosting countries regarding access to funding and the “existential” threat posed by refugees, who might change for good the existing demographic balance.
  • These shared concerns should be duly taken into account to devise a concerted and regionally driven response that would both address immediate refugee needs and facilitate their eventual return to Syria when conditions will allow. A coherent joined-up approach might in turn facilitate access to funding.


It has become a truism to say that the Syrian conflict is a regional crisis. Figures speak for themselves: 800,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon; 550,000 in Jordan; 520,000 in Turkey; 200,000 in Iraq; and 130,000 in Egypt. Altogether, more than 2.2 million refugees—one tenth of the Syrian population—have been registered or are in process of being registered in these five countries.

And this staggering number represents only the tip of the iceberg since it doesn’t take into account scores of Syrians not registered by the UN refugee agency. Reportedly, a popular estimate heard on the streets of Beirut is about 2 million Syrians in this tiny country of 4 million. Even if this number is highly inflated (more reasonable estimates report 1.2 to 1.4 million), it is quite telling that the perception of the Lebanese is that their country is literally flooded with refugees. In Jordan, officials reported that, to the 550,000 registered Syrian refugees in the country, one should add approximately 150,000 unregistered refugees and up to 600,000 Syrian migrants who left Syria either before the conflict or for reasons not directly related to it.

Sign Up

Subscribe to the GO's weekly roundup email:

What to Watch in 2014

Key Global Events in July
A list of key upcoming meetings and events with implications for global affairs.

2013-multilateral-602014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena
A list of ten key issues to watch that are likely to impact international peace and security in 2014, compiled by IPI's Francesco Mancini.