As a state-led killing campaign claims thousands of lives in Syria, the international community continues to debate whether and how to intervene. The double veto by Russia and China has paralysed international efforts to secure a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime and authorising collective action.
But even as efforts to end the killing appear to have hit a dead-end at the UN, international law may allow another path forward.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) - an emerging global norm requiring states to protect their populations from mass atrocities - provides a basis for much needed action. Under R2P, when a state fails to uphold its responsibilities, other states may intervene to protect against atrocities (some would argue that states must intervene). Even so, sceptics counter that "emerging norms" are not binding law and that R2P undermines state sovereignty.
But concepts of sovereignty and human rights obligations have competed, and reinforced each other, since the 19th century. The old idea that polities have responsibilities towards, and not just authority over, their citizens is fundamental to the notion of sovereignty.
Interestingly enough, the earliest modern precedents for humanitarian intervention occurred in Syria's neighbourhood. Throughout the 19th century, European powers intervened to protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in Ottoman-ruled Greece and Mount Lebanon. In 1861, fighting between Christians and Druze in Mount Lebanon triggered sectarian tensions in neighbouring Damascus, now Syria's capital, where mobs massacred about 5,000 Christians.
European intervention was relatively swift and decisive. Then, as is the case now, the interplay of power politics and humanitarian standards drove the decision-making process. Then, as should be the case now, the international community linked recognition of sovereignty to human rights guarantees. That political considerations were at play did not somehow detract from the necessary decision to save lives.
Yet, if the core principles of R2P are beyond debate, the doctrine's practical application has raised several important questions. Does the international community have the option or the obligation to intervene? And, if R2P is meant to free humanitarian intervention from the shackles of political paralysis, does every action - including military - require Security Council authorisation?
While these questions will shape legal principles and power politics over the long term, international law currently allows and encourages regional organisations to diffuse crises in their own backyards. After the humanitarian disaster of Rwanda, Nato interventions in the Balkans and Libya, and a 2009 General Assembly debate on the principles of R2P, the international community now recognises that regional organisations can prevent, address and recover from crises instead of waiting for the politically complex UN process to unfold.
On the current Syrian crisis, the Security Council will likely remain deadlocked as Russia and China assert their geopolitical interests. As such, the Obama administration must lead efforts with regional partners - specifically the Arab League, Nato, and the European Union - to force the Syrian regime to end an escalating campaign of violence against its people.
In one viable and timely course of action, a multilateral coalition would establish a protected humanitarian corridor along the Syrian-Turkish border. Western diplomats, led by French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe, previously suggested such a move, but later decided to focus their efforts on the now-faltering Security Council process.
It's time to revisit that option. Syrian refugees fleeing violence and destruction could find shelter and medical care in such a corridor. Moreover, the lack of a Benghazi-style enclave has thus far hindered more advanced steps to assist Syrian civilians and military defectors. A corridor protected by Nato, Arab states and Turkey would create the needed space to consider the way forward, while protecting civilians.
Politically, such an approach would create dilemmas for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his regime. Already stretched thin, they would have to choose between a direct military confrontation with a much more powerful international force, or ceding territory that could become an incubator for the coming regime change.
Either way, Mr Al Assad cannot win. But it's the world's responsibility to hasten his fall from power in a manner that saves civilian lives and preserves regional order. This can be achieved within the framework of international legitimacy despite the obstruction of narrow interest at the Security Council.
Anthony Elghossain is an attorney with an international law firm based in Washington, DC. Firas Maksad is a political consultant on the Middle East based in Washington, DC
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