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The 'Responsibility To Protect' In Syria And Beyond


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Last spring, as Libyan government forces threatened the rebel city of Benghazi, the Arab League, the United States and its NATO allies argued for a Security Council resolution to protect the lives of civilians.

Now, some want to apply that same principle to Syria, while others wonder why not Congo or Sudan or North Korea. The failure to stop genocide in Rwanda prompted the United Nations to adopt the Responsibility to Protect Act in 2005. It's known informally as R2P. It declares that governments are responsible for the protection of their populations and that the international community has a responsibility to intervene when they don't. Critics call it a fig leaf for regime change or neocolonialism.

When do we have a responsibility to protect? Where do you draw the line? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the pink ribbon on The Opinion Page this week, the Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision to cut off funds angered supporters of Planned Parenthood. The reversal of that decision angered opponents.

But first, responsibility to protect. Ambassador Nancy Soderberg joins us now from member station WJCT in Jacksonville. She served as deputy assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs from 1993 to 1997 on the National Security Council. She's currently president of the Connect U.S. Fund, and nice to have you back on the program.

NANCY SODERBERG: Thank you very much.

CONAN: If the responsibility to protect applied in Libya, does that not apply now in Syria?

SODERBERG: It absolutely does apply. In principle, the world has accepted it; in practice, it's very divided, as we saw with the Russian and Chinese vetoes over the weekend.

CONAN: They said this is simply - any resolution that called for the president to step aside and called for his vice president to take over, this was regime change, this was forcing Western priorities on an Arab country.

SODERBERG: Well, it's really a gross abdication of their responsibilities in the Security Council to block that resolution which could have stopped the violence unleashed, the onslaught that we're seeing going on day to day there, and the world simply cannot sit by while Assad slaughters his people. Over 5,000 people are already dead.

We need to act, and we cannot let Russia and China prevent the responsibility to protect those people dying today in Syria.

CONAN: And others would say look at the case in Libya. Sure, Benghazi was threatened, responsibility to protect. The threat to Benghazi was gone after a few days. The NATO aircraft then effectively became the air force of the rebels in Libya, and the object was to drive Gadhafi from power.

SODERBERG: Well, there's a couple of things going on here. First of all, the responsibility to protect is a direct infringement on the sovereignty of states. It has been respected in international law since it was invented in the year 1648, a long time ago. So old habits die hard.

After the crises in Rwanda, Srebrenica, the world said to itself: Don't we have a responsibility to intervene? I was at the White House during the Rwanda genocide, and anyone who lived through that asks themselves every day what more could I have done. So I feel very strongly about making sure that we do stand up the next time.

It's very different between Syria and Libya. In one respect, Libya was much, much easier. It was an isolated, very small Arab country that if it had imploded would have been contained within Libya. The U.S. and the NATO allies certainly drove a Mack truck through the protection of civilians. That was authorized by the United Nations, and we're seeing that blowback today with Russia and China, fearful that someday their own sovereignty will be infringed upon.

But frankly, Syria is complicated. If Syria implodes, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, potentially Israel and Iraq would be infected. So you have a very cautious approach. We're not volunteering to put our troops on the ground nor do a no-fly zone there. And it's much, much, much more complicated.

That said, that doesn't give us a pass to sit by while these individuals are slaughtered. I think what you'll see in the coming days are coalitions of the willings moving forward, talking about arming the opposition, trying to isolate further Russia and China and working with some of the Arab countries - Tunisia, Egypt and others - at a much more peaceful realm, but we can't stop here just because it's tough.

So I think you'll see some others playing a role, particularly Turkey, maybe Qatar, others, to say this has to stop.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. Joining us here in Studio 3A is David Bosco, an assistant professor of international politics at American University, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, where he writes the Multilateralist blog, and nice to have you with us today.

DAVID BOSCO: Good to be with you, thanks.

CONAN: And remind us: Responsibility to protect, this is a guideline, a set of principles. It's not exactly law.

BOSCO: That's right. It's not a legal doctrine. It's really a norm. It's an idea that people have been advancing, activists and some government actors have been advancing quite spectacularly, actually, in the last decade, decade and a half. And it's made a lot of progress. It's been accepted in a variety of different U.N. documents. The Security Council itself has even referred to it.

But ultimately, when it comes to what international law is, kind of the rules of the road are that you can't intervene in a country, you can't use military force except either in self-defense or when the Security Council authorizes you, and as we've seen here, Russia and China have not been willing to do that.

The other thing that's important to note about responsibility to protect, I think it's an enormously powerful idea, but it also asks that people kind of de-politicize what are inherently political situations. It asks people to say there are atrocities going on and we just have to deal with the atrocities, when every situation is, of course, as the ambassador said, politically freighted, and all sorts of different situations have different political implications.

And it's going to be very hard for any kind of doctrine, you know, that's going to be reliably, consistently enforced to emerge because of those political considerations.

CONAN: Everything is political...

BOSCO: Everything is political. For - and the United States is not immune to that. Remember that, you know, a lot of people look at actions that the United States has taken - look at, you know, actions by the United States in terms of protecting some states - and say, you know, where's your commitment to the responsibility to protect?

The other element is that we have to understand that in many parts of the world there is a deep reluctance to embrace Western interventionism. You know, it's easy to sit in the United States or in Britain or France and say, well, we're about humanitarianism. But to the rest of the world that's been accustomed to kind of self-interested intervention by the West, it doesn't look that way.

You know, they see that as a fig leaf. Now, I'm not saying that's right, but it's a political reality that has to be grappled with.

CONAN: And Ambassador Soderberg, the responsibility to protect civilians in Iraq was one of the reasons cited by the Bush administration. There are reasons to suspect Western opportunism, no?

SODERBERG: Absolutely, and I think the primary reason for going into Iraq at the time was a trumped-up charge of al-Qaeda's presence there and weapons of mass destruction. So the humanitarian piece of it came a bit later. But that has set into the skepticism of much of the world.

But it's frankly hard to fathom Russia's veto in this particular instance. China's in its own category with its own human rights abuses. Russia has some, most primarily in Chechnya. But there is no question that the international community has to intervene in there.

The Arab countries were in there. They had a peace plan. We need to be supporting that. I would add one more category that the U.N. authorizes here. It's not just self-defense. It's also a threat to international peace and security. And I think you are going to see that move forward as this implodes. You're going to see refugees. You're going to Syria imploding.

Assad, as President Obama has said, will leave. It's not a question of if but rather when and how many people are going to die in the meantime. The U.N. did - General Assembly has endorsed the concept of responsibility to protect in 2005 in the General Assembly. But that doesn't mean it agreed on how to do it or when to do it.

And in international affairs, unfortunately, life is not fair. The people of Libya got outside help very directly; the people of Syria have yet to have that occur. I think it will occur probably in much less dramatic fashion and much less overt fashion, action, than you saw in Libya, but I do not see the international community standing by while Assad slaughters his own people with impunity.

CONAN: We're talking with Ambassador Nancy Soderberg and David Bosco. We're discussing the responsibility to protect. Where do you draw the line? How do you decide when to apply these principles? 800-989-8255. Email Nancy's on the line, calling us from Fayetteville in Arkansas.

NANCY: Hi, thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

NANCY: I just think that when a government is purposely attacking its people, whether they are arresting them unduly, unnecessarily, and holding them without letting anybody know what has happened to them, or attacking groups of people who are trying to make a difference in their own country, it's time to draw the line.

I think that we're starting to see some of that here in the United States with the Occupy movement, and I think that if we can't help other countries, we should at least be helping ourselves keep that in check.

CONAN: Well perhaps more to the point, those principles could be applied easily to, for example, North Korea or perhaps China.

NANCY: Exactly. I don't know why we are willing to let those things slide when supposedly we are such supporters of human rights and people being free and safe.

CONAN: Ambassador Soderberg - thanks, Nancy, for the phone call - we have people immolating themselves in Tibet. Is this not a reason to suspect that there is a cause for responsibility to protect?

SODERBERG: Well, there is, although the responsibility to protect itself is fairly narrowly defined to sort of the mass atrocities level. And it essentially says, look, the international community recognizes the sovereignty of other states, and with that sovereignty comes the responsibility to protect your own population.

Where that government fails to do so, either because it's unwilling to or unable, it doesn't matter, the responsibility to protect those people falls to the international community.

There's general agreement on that in principle, but where and when to intervene and how - do we want to protect the people of North Korea from famine, do we want to keep the monks from immolating themselves - all of those pose very difficult questions.

CONAN: We're talking about the responsibility to protect and where you draw the line. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. Email us: More with Ambassador Nancy Soderberg and David Bosco of the Foreign Policy magazine when we come back after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it as a travesty after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council over the weekend aimed to end violence in Syria. Human rights groups reported dozens more people died outside Damascus yesterday as Syria's military continued what's now an 11-month-long crackdown on anti-government demonstrators.

As we saw in Libya, some argue the violence calls for outside intervention under the U.N.'s principle of responsibility to protect. Others insist the case for military intervention is far from clear.

When do we have a responsibility to protect? Where do we draw the line? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests, Nancy Soderberg, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. from 1997 to 2001 and as deputy assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs on the National Security Council. She's currently president of the Connect U.S. Fund. And David Bosco, a professor of international politics at American University, author of "Five to Rule Them All: The U.N. Security Council and the Making of the Modern World."

And David Bosco, there have been other incidents where the responsibility to protect has been invoked, and, well, we don't think of it, but Russia used it to support their intervention in Georgia.

BOSCO: Yeah, and this is - I mean, this points to the difficulty of the concept is that it can be employed by all sorts of people, all sorts of regimes that want to justify their intervention. And as you say, Russia did highlight it, and that just - you know, that signals again, not that this is not a powerful idea, but that in practice it's always going to struggle, it's always going to be political, and it's... You know, one of the reasons I think it's going to be a doctrine that's going to have a hard time, really, establishing itself is that when it does succeed, it's not always going to be clear that it succeeded.

So for example in Libya, you know - Benghazi - there was fear that there was going to be massacre of rebel forces and civilians in Benghazi. The intervention happened. Do we know that there would have been a massacre in Benghazi? We don't, and that's actually a point of significant controversy.

CONAN: Do we know if in fact we might have saved more life with a quick victory by Colonel Gadhafi?

BOSCO: Right, right. I mean, in humanitarian terms, what we produced in Libya was a protracted civil war. Now, I think you can make a compelling case that the number, the raw number of people killed might have been less had Gadhafi won outright.

Now, I think that's a bad outcome for a lot of reasons, but it does point to the difficulty of breaking things down to a simple humanitarian calculus.

CONAN: And it's not the only determination, Ambassador Soderberg. That's democracy. There's self-determination, too.

SODERBERG: Yeah, I just have to come back on the Libya issue and just disagree a little bit with David. There is no question that Gadhafi would have gone house to house and slaughtered people in Benghazi. He had the capacity to do it, the history of doing so and was a brutal dictator. So I absolutely think that there was a fair amount of certainty that he was going to do that.

I also think Libya tends to be in a unique situation because you had an unpopular, really, madman ruler who was slightly crazy and had a horrible human rights record. And when he's announcing on CNN that he's going to do it, that is a call to action that I think will be rare. Usually it's much more complicated and much more subtle.

It's important also to remember that the responsibility to protect does not start with military action. That's a last resort. First you try negotiations. Then you try sanctions. Then you try more negotiations. And if all else has failed, then responsibility to protect kicks in.

The Georgia case was really an abuse of power by Russia under an abuse of the responsibility to protect doctrine, and it was not authorized by the U.N. and was resoundingly condemned by the international community. But they were clearly abusing it.

Kenya is perhaps the best example of the responsibility to protect. When Kenya was about to implode, you had a delegation of senior African former heads of state and the Secretary-General Kofi Annan going there, and they really resolved the crisis. It could have been a massive bloodbath, and yet the international community intervened, solved it.

It might blow up again, but it actually was one of the beauties of international intervention is it was quickly galvanized. One of the problems of intervention is you never quite can prove that you prevented a conflict. But I think in the case of Libya, we certainly did. In the case of Kenya, we certainly did. And in the case of Syria, we're blatantly failing to do exactly that.

CONAN: Here's an email from Christie(ph) in Ann Arbor: In spite of the fact we stood by during the horrors of Rwanda and did nothing and once more said never again, we did nothing for Darfur, and we continue to do nothing for Darfur in spite of the horrors still going on there.

Darfur a much more difficult case.

BOSCO: Yeah, and, I mean, that's a case where it's not that we haven't done anything, I mean, there have been things that have been done, there's been a U.N. peacekeeping force that went there, not terribly effective, but there have been steps. And I think it's important to recognize, just as Ambassador Soderberg said, that there's a lot between doing nothing and outright military intervention.

And it's often, you know, difficult to identify, and it's hard to follow in great detail because it's often complicated diplomacy, but there is an awful lot of space between those two possibilities, and I think ambassador Soderberg is exactly right that that's where the great successes are going to happen.

CONAN: Ambassador Soderberg, in a case like Darfur, where people called for a no-fly zone, for example, there is a question of capability, as well: Where would you base the aircraft? Even the United States or NATO would have had a very difficult time doing that.

SODERBERG: Well, we certainly have the capacity to do that. We did it in Iraq, both in the northern part of Iraq and in the southern part of Iraq for almost a decade. It's expensive, but it does work. In the case of Darfur, the proposal was to have NATO do it and also to try to have a much more robust peacekeeping operation there.

The problem with Darfur is that the Russians, once again, as well as the Chinese, were blocking tougher sanctions. They, again, were not willing to take any step that the Sudanese government that was perpetrating the very genocide that we're trying to prevent, said OK.

So the Sudanese government played the international community like a fiddle, talking about trying to approve every peacekeeper that went in there. They wouldn't let certain ones come in, particularly because they were effective. And the, you know, Chinese were blatantly trying to protect their oil interests there, and Russia went along with it.

But there's a bigger picture in Sudan that is a good story. President Bush got very little credit for it, but he actually was determined to end the two-decade-long civil war which had killed millions of people between the north and the south, got an agreement in 2005 and ended what could have gone on for quite a decade and led to the creation, last year, of a new Southern Sudan.

Now it's a very precarious situation that may blow up again, people are very concerned about it, but there is also good news in Sudan, as well as the genocide in Darfur, however, has been allowed to go on unconscionably long, and nobody can say we didn't know it.

Enormous amount of time and energy went through organizations like Save Darfur, Enough, lots of international celebrities went there, and yet no one was willing to really stand up to the Sudanese regime, whose president, by the way, is an indicted war criminal, and some African states still let him travel there without arresting him.

He needs to be in the Hague, and the genocide there needs to end.

CONAN: Let's go next to Barbara(ph), Barbara who is from Houston.

BARBARA: Hi. I just think this is so - reminds me so much of - in the state of Texas, it's called outcry witness, but nationally we ask people, any adult who is aware of someone being abused, a child under the age of 18 being abused, is required to do something, that you report so that something can be done.

I do not mean to say that we take away self-determination or that we be paternalistic about this, but when people who are not in a position of authority are being abused, who are self-immolating, who are truly crying out to the world in the only way they can, for us to turn our back or to get involved in some lengthy process that doesn't result in anything is heartbreaking.

It seems immoral to me, and yet I'm listening to the conversation, and I'm listening to Ambassador Soderberg, I understand it's extremely complex. I think that one of the things that makes us a great nation is, or at least was, our ability to genuinely care and to do something when we care.

SODERBERG: I couldn't agree more with you, Barbara, and I congratulate you on your work for the outcry witness and protection of children at risk. And I would encourage you to speak out about the situation in Tibet. There's a very active community here in the United States and worldwide, led by the Dalai Lama, that is actively pushing the Chinese government to stop its abuses.

The U.S. government actually does quite a bit on this issue. I'd like to see them do more, but that's the beauty of a democracy is lead a campaign to push your government to do more. I wonder if you have - what would you like our government to do to protect the people of Tibet?

BARBARA: You know, I think that's an excellent question, and I have to say I don't have the answer, and maybe that's part of my discomfort, is that I look at myself in the mirror and think: What have I done? What am I (technical difficulties)? I was a classroom teacher. I had eight students who was(ph) murdered. Could I have done something? So I think it's something that we all have to face, though. I think this conversation is good because we cannot choose - or we should not choose to look away.

I think we can't. I think we can watch fake reality TV, and we can do as much as we desire to not confront what truly is going in the world. But I think it's incumbent upon us as human beings to make ourselves look, and then, as you say, what is it that I can do? And I appreciate that question, because that is something I need to ask myself again, then.

CONAN: David Bosco?

BOSCO: Yeah. I was going to - I think Barbara and Nancy, you know, brought up - Barbara in particular - an interesting point about, you know, advocacy groups and what people can do. But I think one of the really interesting questions is going to be: Do you get advocacy movements like you have now in the U.S. in some of the emerging countries, you know, the emerging powers, in an India, in a Brazil, in a Turkey? These are democracies. These are big states that are economically growing fast.

Are you going to see any kind of advocacy for the responsibility to protect within those societies that push those countries to take stands on these issues? Because often, they've been disappointing on these issues. At the U.N., they are quite skeptical of intervention, and have not been nearly as outspoken as they could have been. So I think that's going to be a really important question going forward.

SODERBERG: I think that's a great point, and you cannot always have the U.S. be the one solving the problems. Sometimes they don't want our intervention there, and so building up the capacity of human rights groups on the ground to do it is the best way to address it. Look at what's happening in Egypt today. The democracy movements are getting prosecuted by the military-led government. They're holding 19 Americans who are helping the groups on the ground there.

And this supposed ally of the United States - it gets $1.5 billion a year - is thinking about putting them on trial, has announced they're going to do so, including the son of our secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood. It's appalling.

CONAN: Nancy Soderberg, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, served as deputy assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs, currently a distinguished visiting scholar at the University of North Florida and president of Connect U.S. Fund. Also with us, David Bosco of the American University and Foreign Policy magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And here's an email from Sadu(ph) in Cincinnati: The U.S. does not always follow these human rights principles, especially when they are in conflicts with national security interests.

For example, we stop speaking out against slavery and ethnic cleansing in Mauritania as soon as that government volunteered to help us fight al-Qaida. And the record is whether it's that case or others. You could point out Congo - seven-and-a-half million dead over the past 20 years.

BOSCO: One of the interesting things is that, you know, again, Congo, I know less about the situation in Mauritania. Congo's another situation where you're kind in this intermediate range between the international community not doing anything and the international community taking the action that's probably necessary. I mean, again, you have a fairly large peacekeeping force there, not always effective, but probably...

CONAN: And sometimes, part of the problem.

BOSCO: Sometimes part of the problem, but probably in the aggregate, making the situation better. And I'm afraid that in most situations, you are in this kind of limbo, this gray area between doing nothing and doing what's necessary.

CONAN: Ambassador Soderberg, let me return to the case of Syria, and again, you have familiarity with the case in the former Yugoslavia, where the United States and its allies acted without Security Council authorization - first in Bosnia, later in Kosovo. Is that the kind of situation we're going to be facing eventually in Syria?

SODERBERG: I think absolutely. We did actually have U.N. authorization in Bosnia. The Russians did block our air campaign at the Security Council in Kosovo, and we said heck with that. We're doing it, anyway. One thing I would come back to is the U.N. It's got lots of problems, but people forget that the U.N. has the second-largest deployed military operation in the world. We've got about 140 deployed. The U.N. has 120,000 troops on the ground, preventing atrocities every day.

And, yes, it's not perfect. There have been horrible instances of sexual abuse. But by and large, that's a collection of 120,000 dedicated men and women who are on the ground, preventing atrocities every day. They don't get the credit they deserve. I think, ultimately, you'll see the U.N. in many of these cases, and probably including Syria. It's been in Lebanon for decades. There's even a small one in Israel. And if you fast-forward to what I think is going to happen in Syria, I think you'll have a coalition of the willing going to try and protect the population on the ground, not through an army or armed forces on the ground, but you'll have a civil war breaking out with various factions supporting the opposition, others supporting the government.

It's going to get very, very, very messy. Ultimately, Assad will leave, and you'll have, I think, a democratic government come there. A lot of it is going to depend on what Iran does. A lot of it's going to happen on what the U.S. does. And a lot of it is going to depend on the people of Syria. And ultimately, this government has to go.

CONAN: One final email from Erik in Albany, California: I was dismayed to hear Ms. Soderberg castigate the U.N. for not coming to the aid of Syrian protesters, since she wrote a book, "The Superpower Myth," where she argued, among other things, that anybody who wanted to invade Iraq because of human rights concerns was delusional.

SODERBERG: I love the fact that people are reading my book. "The Superpower Myth" is that the U.S. can solve all of its problems altogether. I don't think that the justification for going into Iraq on humanitarian cases is something that justified us going in. I think in the long run, Iraq will survive as a difficult, not perfect Jeffersonian democracy. But at the time, we went in 2003, Saddam Hussein was contained. He did not have weapons of mass destruction. And the war in Iraq will continue to divide the American people.

It was divided at the time, and it remains divided and very controversial. But I do think the people of Iraq are going to make it work after our departure at the end of last year.

CONAN: Ambassador Soderberg, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

SODERBERG: My pleasure.

CONAN: Nancy Soderberg joined us from WJCT, our member station in Jacksonville. Also, our thanks to David Bosco, who was with us here on Studio 3A. He is assistant professor of international politics at American University, and his book is "Five to Rule Them All: The U.N. Security Council and the Making of the Modern world." Appreciate your time.

BOSCO: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Up next: The uproar over the Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood is on the Opinion Page. Stay with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.