Syria has been in a state of persistent upheaval since March 2011. In this respect, Western powers have attempted to intervene in a variety of ways, including the implementation of unilateral sanctions on Bashar al-government Assad’s and the presentation of the issue to the United Nations Security Council. When grappling with humanitarian interventions, human rights law has grown and taken a turn toward international law. In the post-Cold War age, global consciousness of human rights is growing, and it has captured the interest of the international community. As a result, the issue of human rights security actions has become a hotly debated subject. Consequently, these interventions in human rights have also gone through transformations. It is through these transformations that the responsibility to protect emerged after years of diplomatic negotiations on how and under what circumstances should the international community intervene in the matters of another independent State so as to protect the citizens2. As a result, the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P) has been met with controversies and constant debates through the years. This essay, therefore, looks into the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and its issues on Syria and also evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of R2P as an international human rights norm.

Responsibility to Protect in Syria

The central issue in Syria is initiated by spring of Arab oppositions that are seeking to overthrow longstanding authoritarian governments. As described in the article by David Forsythe (2012), the events in Syria started with the uprising against the long-standing rule of the Assad family. The family had governed in the country for over 40 years in a repressive manner. In 2011, the then sitting leader Bashar Al-Assad resisted to give in to the demand for the most prolonged and peaceful uprising that wanted change. To maintain his control, Bashar al-Assad resulted to violence. The peaceful protestors were hauled up by armed in-sergeants, and as a result, the country veered towards and internal armed conflict.

In the United Nations Security Council, there were many discussions of their responsibility to protect as the situation in Syria escalated to the military firing on civilian targets. The need to intervene was highlighted by the social media presentation of the situation in Syria and the suffering of the citizens. The government had banned any form of news media from broadcasting the situation in the country, but some traditional journalists ignored the ban and slipped into the country2. There was, therefore, increasing disturbing reports sent from Syria by these journalists and some of them paid for the intrusion with their lives. In 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, while addressing the general assembly ascertained that there have probably been crimes against humanity committed in Syria. This assertion was seconded by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who also advocated for international action in the country2.

Through Corporation of Western States, Arab States, and Arab league, a draft to be represented by the United Nations Security Council was developed. The draft called for Assad to step down and allow his vice president to lead the country so as to enable room for negotiations. The council hoped that such initiatives would result in peaceful negotiations and probably the change needed by the Syrian people. Two UN members, Russia and China, however, refused to support the draft and voted to block any council action in Syria. Contrary, all other members of the council had voted for international action.

The double veto by China and Russia was met with harsh exchanges between diplomats at an escalated level that the public had never witnessed before. Russia tried to negate the situation it was in its attempts to salvage its close relations with Assad’s government through mediation efforts which proved futile. China also sent diplomats to Damascus and tried to mediate to futility2. After the double Veto, the government of Assad intensified its attack on protestors with arms shipments obtained from Iran and Russia. It was clear that Russia had vested interests in Syria due to economic gain, but it was unclear why China also decided to vote against. The issue behind China’s vote was because as an authoritarian state, the country leaders were worried that democracy movement initiated by Arab Spring would spread to Asia and crackdown on dissidents in the first semi of the year 2011. Also, the various human rights problems the country suffered in China hindered the country from embracing international protection of human rights as a principle2.

The central issues in Syria about Responsibility to Protect (R2P) were informed of the attacks by the regime of Assad against a large population of Syrian citizens. By late March 2012, the death toll was at more than 8000 people according to media reports. According to the guiding principles of UN R2P, when a government engages in systematic attacks on its people so as to maintain control has lost its right to rule. Russia and China objected to any efforts by the council to try and effect change in Syrian governance. Moscow had invested heavily in Assad government regarding military, political and economic sectors2.

Strengths and Weaknesses of R2P as an International Norm

Adoption of the responsibility to protect can be likened to the Universal Declaration of Human rights. The main reason why the universal declaration of human rights came to be was to prevent a repetition of the atrocities like the kind that had been committed by the Nazis. It is clear that the Nazi ideology violated the theory of human rights in practice and therefore an adoption of the doctrine of universal human rights implies a commitment to neo-Lockean political theory. Another strength of R2P as an international norm is that the doctrine has substituted the concept of natural rights with that of human rights. Therefore, R2P can eliminate the controversial philosophical implications of grounding rights in nature. As a result, the responsibility to protect ideology can seek agreements on international norms without looking for the same agreements regarding values and beliefs. Also, the doctrine is essential because it includes social and economic rights such as rights to water education, health, and work that are relevant in various industrial countries in the early 20th and 21st centuries 3.

The concept of universal human rights is, however, similar to the Lockean concept of natural rights located in the Western liberal traditions. In this aspect, the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P) becomes highly controversial. The reason is that the theory is seen as western and therefore liberal. Also, the concept lacks philosophical grounding. Also, the idea of R2P reveals a western bias in its emphasis on human rights other rather than duties, individual rather than collective rights political and civil rather than cultural, social and economic rights. Similarly, the concept lacks explicit concern with the problem of imperialism 3.


The United Nations Charter is the constitutional basis for all United Nations human rights guidelines, captures a before and after including a backward view of the history of R2P. The R2P doctrine declares human rights as an element that is indispensable and as a result works to promote universal respect of and observance of fundamental freedoms and human rights for all. The universal declaration of human rights is the most consistent form of Responsibility to protect, and it clearly defines the strengths and weaknesses of adopting R2P as an international human rights norm. Despite the challenges, R2P has helped fight for human rights and negotiated a means to an end of civil wars like it did in Syria. The central issue in Syria that warranted the need for R2P intervention was that the sitting president had refused to allow room for leadership change and resulted in violence in an attempt to gain control of the citizens protesting his rule. When the matter was presented to the United Nations Security Council, Russia and China voted against implementation of Responsibility to Protect principle in Syria. Russia did so due to its close ties with President Bashar al-Assad while China voted against in an attempt to protect itself from possible R2P interventions in the country. As the diplomats debated on what to do, the death toll in Syria rose to about 8000 people as Assad intensified his attacks on protestors using arms obtained from Iran and Russia.


FORSYTHE, DAVID P. 2012. “The UN Security Council and Human Rights State Sovereignty and Human Dignity.” International Policy Analysis.

Freeman, Michael. 2011. “After 1945: The New Age of Rights.” In Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary Approach, 2nd editio. Malden: Polity.

Mutua, Makau. 2001. “Savages, Victims and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal 42 (1).

Sultana, Farhana, and Alex Loftus, eds. 2012. THE RIGHT TO WATER: Politics, Governance and Social Struggles. 1st editio. New York: Earthscan.

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