Pundits claim that the war in Syria has sounded the death knell for humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). By failing to intercede in that country’s brutal civil war, many believe the international community effectively turned its back on an important emerging international norm, one that over 150 heads of state endorsed at the UN’s 2005 World Summit.
But is this really the case? In December 2013, for example, the UN Security Council (UNSC) authorized military action to counter the Central African Republic’s (CAR) genocidal chaos. Subsequently France, the ex-colonial power, joined forces with the post-colonial African Union (AU) to deploy troops to protect civilians. The UNSC also imposed an arms embargo on the country and warned the UN of the need for a possible peacekeeping mission. In another example, the UNSC in April 2013 approved action in Mali, led by France and the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to counter Islamist extremists.
Of course, the most famous R2P example is when the UNSC approved the March 2011 international air war against Libya, led by Paris and London with Washington “leading from behind.” This was the first-ever such authorization against a functioning de jure government, and the first such use of substantial humanitarian military muscle since the contested 1999 NATO operation in Kosovo.
But if Western colonial powers are on the defensive and R2P truly is on the wane since Libya, how can one explain the enthusiasm for the 2013 interventions in the CAR and Mali? A middle ground has been broken for coming to the rescue of civilians—at least in some cases, there is the double- standard of inconsistency whereas formerly there had been only a single standard: do nothing. Historically there has always been too little deployment of military force for human protection. “There is nothing constant in this world but inconsistency,” advised Jonathan Swift, and this bit of folk wisdom certainly applies to international politics and R2P. When reviewing R2P’s rapid normative journey in the turmoil of the post-Cold War era, what stand out are the constant and ongoing trade-offs among legality, feasibility, and legitimacy.