Global Britain: The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention Contents

1The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and Humanitarian Intervention


1.The airstrikes in April 2018 by the UK, US and France in Syria have raised questions about the moral and legal basis for intervening militarily in other states, without their consent, on humanitarian grounds. Whilst it is not the first time that the UK has justified the use of military force based on humanitarian grounds, its use now raises questions as to why such action was necessary and if more could have been done to protect civilians at an earlier stage. The Committee decided therefore to examine the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and humanitarian intervention as bases for military action, particularly in light of the issues raised by this humanitarian intervention in Syria. We also considered the impact that failing to protect civilians has had in Syria, and what other measures could be implemented to protect civilians.


2.Calls for intervention to establish No Fly Zones, or humanitarian corridors to protect civilians in Syria had been made by some parliamentarians in 2011 and 2012. However it was not until August 2013, following a significant chemical weapons attack, that the Government put forward a motion in the House of Commons to agree to military action in Syria if necessary. This motion was defeated.2 Dr Leslie Vinjamuri, in her former role as Director at the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice, and Associate Professor of International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies,3 explained that subsequent diplomatic efforts by the US and Russia at that time ultimately resulted in “… a decision to pursue something short of using military force—a negotiation of what, at the time, people thought was the removal of the chemical weapons that existed and a decision by the Syrian Government to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.”4 This agreement failed to prevent further chemical weapons attacks in Syria however, and Human Rights Watch have estimated that there were 85 chemical weapons attacks between August 2013 and February 2018, with the Syrian government responsible for the majority of those attacks.5

3.In 2017, following a large scale chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhun, the US undertook airstrikes against a regime airbase in order, in the words of the US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, “to deter future use of chemical weapons and to show the United States will not passively stand by while Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons, which are prohibited by international law and which were declared destroyed.”6

4.On 14 April 2018 the UK, US and France authorised air strikes against military targets in Syria in response to the suspected use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Regime in Douma. In that attack in Douma, it was reported that 75 people, including children, were killed and there were up to 500 casualties.7

The Inquiry

5.In the wake of these airstrikes the Committee decided to carry out an inquiry considering the legal basis for such interventions, whether more could be done to protect civilian populations at an earlier point in violent conflicts, and the impact of decisions taken in relation to Syria. Specifically, the inquiry focussed on the concepts of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and humanitarian intervention and their effectiveness in protecting civilians. The inquiry did not consider the Government’s efforts regarding counter-terrorism in the region. In addition to receiving written evidence, the Committee heard from two expert panels which included Syrians impacted by the conflict, legal experts, academics and civil society practitioners. The Committee also took evidence from Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State for the Middle East, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN, and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) officials.89

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and Humanitarian Intervention

6.Under the UN Charter there are currently two recognised exceptions to the general prohibition on the use of force on the territory of a sovereign state without its consent: self-defence (Article 51); or with the authority of the UN Security Council (Chapter VII and, in the case of the use of force by regional organisations, Chapter VIII.)10

7.The concept of humanitarian intervention lies beyond these two exceptions and claims a right to intervention based on use of strictly necessary and proportionate force undertaken as a last resort in the absence of host state consent to avert an overwhelming and large-scale humanitarian emergency.11 The concept has a long heritage, stretching back until at least the nineteenth century. It has, however, sat at odds with aspects of international law and there is no specific provision for it in the UN Charter. As a justification for use of force it is therefore highly contested and although the UK has relied on it previously to justify international interventions without UN Security Council approval, including in Kosovo in 1999 and Sierra Leone in 2000,12 there is no consensus as to whether it is an accepted basis for the use of force.

8.It was from these deeply divisive arguments that the concept of humanitarian intervention had generated, particularly following the NATO-led intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the failure of the international community to intervene in the Rwandan genocide and the conflict in Bosnia, that the idea of R2P was born. The Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect described the resulting divergence of views at that time as “a pair of unpalatable choices: either states could passively stand by and let mass killing happen in order to strictly preserve the letter of international law, or they could circumvent the UN Charter and unilaterally carry out an act of war on humanitarian grounds.”13 Dr Adrian Gallagher, an Associate-Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds, referred to this in his written evidence as the “authority dilemma”.14

9.To bridge this gap, the principle of R2P was developed and included in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document.15 This was then adopted as the basis for UN General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/60/1) by Heads of State and Government and the concept has since been presented as three pillars of responsibility.16 R2P focusses on preventing the four mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, rather than broader humanitarian crises. R2P does not just refer to military intervention but allows for it under Pillar 3, with UN Security Council authorisation. It also includes a “broad range of preventive, negotiated and other non-coercive measures that are central to R2P.”17

10.R2P confers no legal obligation on states to act in the same way that a treaty might but it has created an emerging norm that acknowledges a political commitment to a collective approach to preventing atrocities.18 The conflict in Syria is a tragic example of the limitations of that commitment. With an estimated 400,000 civilian deaths over the last seven years, the regular and sustained use of prohibited weapons by the Syrian Regime against its own people, and the lack of effective collective action by the international community, questions have been raised as to whether R2P is fit for purpose and whether the international community should be doing more to protect civilians from mass atrocities, as well as how this could be done.19

2 HC Deb, 29 August 2013, col 1425 [Commons Chamber]

3 Dr Vinjamuri has subsequently taken up a new role as Head of the US and the Americas Programme, and Dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy at Chatham House.

4 Q18 [Dr Leslie Vinjamuri]

5 Human Rights Watch, Syria: A year on, Chemical Weapons Attack Persist, accessed 17 July 2018

7 HC Deb, 16 April 2018, col 39 [Commons Chamber]

8 Martin Longden, Head of Near East Department, and UK Special Representative for Syria at the FCO, accompanied Alistair Burt in providing evidence to the Committee. Richard Jones, Deputy Director, Human Rights and Democracy, Corinne Kitsell, Deputy Director UN & Multilateral / UN Coordinator, and Paul McKell, Legal Director at the FCO, accompanied Lord Ahmad in providing evidence to the Committee.

9 Professor John Bew, who serves as a Specialist Adviser for the Committee’s ongoing work on Global Britain, has declared the following interests: consultant for the think tank Policy Exchange on a project called ‘Britain in the World’, examining UK foreign policy (since March 2016); contributing writer (not contracted) for the New Statesman; past consultancy for M&C Saatchi on informal basis, father is Cross-Bench Peer in House of Lords (Lord Bew of Donegore).

10 Global Centre for R2P, RTP0003, para 14

11 The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (RTP0016), para 15

12 Jo Cox Foundation (RTP0013), para 3.3

13 Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (RTP0003), para 2

14 Dr Adrian Gallagher (RTP0008), para 1.1

15 UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, Responsibility to Protect, accessed 17 July 2018

16 “R2P stipulates three pillars of responsibility. Pillar One: Every state has the Responsibility to Protect its populations from four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Pillar Two: The wider international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist individual states in meeting that responsibility. Pillar Three: If a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action, in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the UN Charter.” Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (RTP0003), para 4.

17 Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (RTP0003), para 12

18 Gerrit Kurtz (RTP0007), para 4, Dr Aidan Hehir (RTP0009), p2

19 Human Rights Watch, Syria: A year on, Chemical Weapons Attack Persist, accessed 17 July 2018

Published: 10 September 2018