R2P (Responsibility to Protect) Syria?


What’s wrong with human rights discourse is that it’s subject centered, focused on an already empowered subject and the subject’s actions. What gets lost is the other’s right, for instance, the right to protection from abuse. Then what? What if the subject fails to protect or chooses not protect, or does not want to protect, for this or that reason? Then the human right falls flat. It doesn’t mean very much.

Is there not also an obligation to protect? In the case of Syria, this has nothing to do with American exceptionalism, and everything to do with the obligations imposed upon a strong state to protect another suffering people from abuse. This would be the subject’s obligation to protect the other, even in the case when international bodies are hobbled by competing national and geo-strategic interests.

Perhaps the theoretical point is that rights and obligations work in tandem. Obligations activate rights, and rights activate obligations, on the part of a subject and the other.

As always the devil is in the detail as to how this all gets worked out in real time. There are myriad conditions and rules that hem its exercise, some of which go back to the familiar rules of classical just war theory.

The so-called responsibility-to-protect is part of an ongoing, emergent discourse coming out of the UN that dates back to 2005.  You can read more about the theory here: http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml

For a more sober and critical view with reference to Libya and Syria, see this old column by David Rieff: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/opinion/r2p-rip.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Part of the frustration is that R2P is a moral concept that wants to be legal and political, while the politics gets mired by morality. The R2P might be an imperfect doctrine, but it frames the discussion re: Syria with a little more urgency than might otherwise be the case. It still remains unclear which will cause more damage, an act of intervention against the Assad regime or continuing to do nothing, which I wonder is what happens next.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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3 Responses to R2P (Responsibility to Protect) Syria?

  1. alwayscon says:


    So interesting that I stumbled upon this! Not only is it relevant but I, as a Politics student, am to prepare for a debate on the intervention/non-intervention in Syria.

    It really is a touchy one. On the one hand, R2P. And we have seen what happens when states decide to keep quiet – Genocide in Rwanda. On the other hand, as you put it, how damaging would the intervention be? And what would be the subsequent effects?

    Stay well,

  2. dmfant says:

  3. efmooney says:

    Just a side comment about rights: there are rights TO certain goods (education, health care, etc. and that presuppose an empowered subject who can claim them in political-legal circles that will respect that claim); and there are rights NOT To Be Harmed (and those do not presuppose an empowered subject: so ‘animal rights’, or a fetus’ ‘right to life’ is asserted on behalf of the powerless and those vulnerable to harm precisely because they are dis-empowered and have no standing in political-legal circles — if I speak for the rights of trees, I stand in as a surrogate for the speechless). The US Civil War and the fight for Woman’s Suffrage were fights to empower the dis-empowered, those without the agency of subjects.

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