Global Britain: The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention Contents


On 14 April 2018 the Government, with the US and France, conducted airstrikes in Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The legal basis for these airstrikes put forward by the Government was humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian intervention allows proportionate and limited use of force where there is extreme humanitarian suffering and no practicable alternative. Whilst it has been used by the UK to justify use of force on a number of occasions, it is a contested concept in international law.

It was from the debate around humanitarian intervention that the concept of Responsibility to Protect was born in 2005. This proposed a collection of measures aimed at protecting civilian populations, including the use of force as a last resort and with UN Security Council approval. The current political climate within the UN Security Council has meant that collective action in Syria has not been authorised, with Russia using its veto in relation to proposed resolutions on Syria twelve times. As a result, the humanitarian situation in Syria remains desperate. An estimated 400,000 people have been killed, eleven million displaced and many more are living in untenable conditions, with fears that the situation in Idlib province may also deteriorate significantly in the near future.1

The Government must consider what more it can do to prevent humanitarian suffering from taking place on such scale in the future. Whilst we agree that this should include being able to rely on humanitarian intervention as a measure of last resort, the Government should also take further preventative measures to pre-empt and avert extreme humanitarian distress. This should include developing a cross-Government mass atrocity strategy that can help identify areas of high risk at an early stage with a range of measures to be taken in response, adopting and promoting the proposal made by the French government in 2013 for permanent members of the Security Council to refrain from use of the veto where there is credible evidence of genocide, and strengthening its stance on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, setting out how it plans to limit the impact that these weapons have on civilians.

The international community’s failure to act and intervene meaningfully in Syria has created opportunities for the regime and other actors in the region to commit atrocity crimes, including the continued use of chemical weapons. The UK must bear its share of the responsibility for this and examine the repercussions of its decisions not to do more on its own and collectively. To this end we call on the Government to establish an independent inquiry into the decision-making processes that led to non-intervention in Syria, the recent airstrikes notwithstanding, and the lessons that can be learnt to prevent similar humanitarian crises happening in the future or to respond more effectively to such crises which may arise. It is clear from the catastrophe in Syria that when a state manifestly fails to protect its own citizens, non-intervention by the international community often results in appalling human suffering and widespread loss of civilian life.

1 Human Rights Watch, Syria: Events of 2017, accessed 17 July 2018

Published: 10 September 2018