The idealistic notion of "responsibility to protect" has been discredited by the intractable international politics of the Syrian tragedy.
'Responsibility to protect' fails Syria reality test
The United Nations has not saved Syria. Through 19 months of revolt and repression, many of the country's 21 million people have hoped for the kind of help that Libyans received, from western military forces operating under the aegis of the United Nations.
It hasn't happened. The warplanes of President Bashar Al Assad still patrol Syria's skies unchallenged, over the heads of 1.5 million Syrians who have been displaced. His armed forces continue to be well supplied with arms and ammunition. The revolt appears to have settled into bloody stalemate, at the expense of the people.
In the Syrian tragedy the doctrine known as "the responsibility to protect" (R2P) has been conclusively disproved and discredited. The intractable realities of power and politics will not yield, the world now sees, to the idealistic hopes of legal theorists, professors and starry-eyed diplomats.
No one should take pleasure in the puncturing of R2P. A doctrine to protect peoples from their own murderous governments would surely save and improve countless lives. And that is exactly what R2P set out to do. In 2005 the UN General Assembly asserted that the international community "has the responsibility … to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity".
No reasonable observer doubts that Syria today is a cesspit of war crimes. And yet the R2P languishes, hostage to the way the world really works. Only the Security Council can give UN authorisation to the use of force, and Russia and China, each holding a Security Council veto, have made it clear that they will not countenance military action. The few countries that might be capable of decisive unilateral armed involvement, and even the Nato alliance, are understandably paralysed by political concerns after Iraq and Afghanistan.
And so the diplomatic dance continues: Syria will be a prime topic at the annual UN General Assembly meeting this week, but as UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told the Security Council on Monday, there is no reason to expect diplomatic progress, nor internal compromise.
R2P thus retreats from the real world, where it seemed to have acquired a toehold with the liberation of Libya, back into the domain of idealism.
The problem of collective security remains unsolved. And the agony of Syria goes on.