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Responsibility While Protecting

NEW YORK – Ten months ago, the United Nations Security Council, with no dissent, authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians at imminent risk of massacre in Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya. Those lives were saved – and, if the Security Council had acted equally decisively and robustly in the 1990’s, so might those of 8,000 others in Srebrenica and 800,000 in Rwanda.

I and many others hailed the agreement to intervene in Libya as the coming of age of the responsibility to protect (“R2P”) principle, unanimously embraced by the world’s governments in 2005. Its core idea – countering centuries of treating sovereignty almost as a license to kill – is that states must protect their own people from genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. If they manifestly fail to do so, the international community has the responsibility to act – by persuasion, if possible, and by coercion, if necessary.

Now, ten months later, the Security Council is paralyzed over Syria, unable to agree not only on the extreme step of military force, but even on lesser coercive measures like targeted sanctions, an arms embargo, or referral to the International Criminal Court. That inaction comes despite a death toll of well over 5,000 and an outlook even worse than in Libya early last year.

The hesitation partly reflects the very different geopolitics of the Syrian crisis: potentially explosive regional sectarian divisions, no Arab League unanimity in favor of tough action, a long Russian commitment to the Assad regime, and a strong Syrian army, which would make any conceivable military intervention difficult and bloody.