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Preventing Mass Atrocity Crimes: The Responsibility to Protect and the Syria Crisis


Paul R. Williams


American University - Washington College of Law

J. Trevor Ulbrick


Public International Law & Policy Group

Jonathan Worboys


Public International Law & Policy Group

November 1, 2012

Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 45, Fall 2012
American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2012-45

Abstract:     
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a complicated and “emerging norm” of international law that seeks to provide a means for the international community to prevent mass atrocity crimes occurring within the boundaries of a sovereign state. Since its emergence in 2001, in the wake of humanitarian tragedies in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Darfur, R2P has been hailed as a way of resolving what one commentator called the “problem from hell.” Under R2P, however, the use of force is reserved for actions within the UN Charter’s Chapter VII framework.

As the Syria crisis has demonstrated, this position continues to hinder efforts by the international community to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes. At the time of writing, attacks by Syrian government forces and militias have killed upward of 75,000 civilians, and approximately 1,000,000 refugees have fled into neighboring states. Diplomacy and sanctions have not worked. Although the UN Human Rights Council has concluded that Syria’s humanitarian crisis is being driven by a “state policy” of deliberate attacks against civilians, the Security Council remains deadlocked and ineffective in the crisis. Reports from a number of Western governments that the Syrian government has deliberately used chemical weapons against civilians underscore the gravity of the crisis.

This article argues that when peaceful measures have been exhausted and the Security Council is deadlocked, R2P’s third pillar should allow the use of only those low-intensity military options, such as no-fly zones and humanitarian safe havens, that are focused on protecting populations. This approach would advance R2P’s development by establishing specific criteria that allow for the limited use of force when the Security Council fails to act. In doing so, R2P will be able to fulfill its primary purpose of preventing mass atrocities within a sovereign state, thus preventing humanitarian tragedies similar to those witnessed in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and now Syria.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 32

Keywords: responsibility to protect, Syria, mass atrocity crimes, humanitarian

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Date posted: November 13, 2012 ; Last revised: May 6, 2013

Suggested Citation

Williams, Paul R. and Ulbrick, J. Trevor and Worboys, Jonathan, Preventing Mass Atrocity Crimes: The Responsibility to Protect and the Syria Crisis (November 1, 2012). Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 45, Fall 2012; American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2012-45. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2174768 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2174768

Contact Information

Paul R. Williams (Contact Author)
American University - Washington College of Law ( email )
4801 Massachusetts Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20016
United States
J. Trevor Ulbrick
Public International Law & Policy Group ( email )
888 16th St. NW
Washington, DC 20008
United States
Jonathan Worboys
Public International Law & Policy Group ( email )
888 16th Street
Washington DC
Washington DC, DC 20008
United States
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