The thorny issue of intervening in the conflict in Syria was high on the agenda at Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights and the International Law Students Association’s eighth annual Global Generations Conference at the University of Ottawa recently.
The Feb. 24 conference, entitled “The Way Forward – The Promise of R2P,” featured student presentations and a panel of experts whose current work engages with the responsibility to protect (R2P).
U of O president and keynote speaker Allan Rock explained that R2P provides for three things: prevention, response, and rebuilding. Rock played a critical role in the establishment of R2P while in his former post as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“Ultimately, if all else fails, boots on the ground or wings in the air,” he said, stressing that military intervention is the last resort on a continuum of responses to mass atrocity crimes.
He tackled the issue of NATO’s recent intervention in Libya before exploring a number of ways he thinks R2P can be improved. Specifically, he urged the strengthening of regional organizations, incorporating gender into the R2P framework, and pushing for Security Council reform.
One of the questions posed to the panel asked the experts’ take on a potential military intervention into Syria, where the Assad regime’s crackdown on protesters has left thousands dead among ongoing violence.
There was consensus among the panellists that a military response from the international community might risk doing more harm than good.
“R2P needs to be implemented on a case-by-case basis. That’s what it calls for and that’s how it should be,” commented Fergus Watt, executive director of the World Federalist Movement Canada. “The flipside to that is that [R2P] will inevitably be vulnerable to allegations of double standards.”
“But,” he continued, “any R2P analysis of Syria has to, I think, set the military option aside.”
Watt’s concerns were echoed by Jennifer Bond, a U of O professor who spent years working in Syria with Iraqi refugees after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
“I spent many of my days becoming intimately familiar with the disaster that was post-intervention Iraq,” she said. “I think one of the things I hope the world has learned is to think very carefully about what happens after in the post-conflict moment.”
Bond says she sees similar dynamics in Syria as there were in pre-invasion Iraq, as they are both tribally based societies where ethnic tensions run deep — a recipe for potential bloodshed in the aftermath of an intervention.
“I’m in no way endorsing or suggesting the international community shouldn’t be involved, but I think our desperation to seek a humanitarian response can’t trump our nuanced understanding of the situation.”
R2P is an international security and human rights norm established by the United Nations in 2005.
The doctrine stipulates that a state has the responsibility to protect its population from “mass atrocity crimes” — genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. When a state fails to live up to this responsibility, the responsibility falls to the international community.
Students from Osgoode Hall at York University, University of Toronto, McGill University, and the University of Ottawa presented papers on R2P at the conference.
“I think it’s important that students get the chance to present their work to experts in the field,” commented Ottawa law student and presenter Ayesha Kumararatne. “This was an amazing opportunity for us to get key insights from experts, especially for those of us looking to publish our work later on.”
Ryan Liss, a University of Toronto law student, won the Top Paper award for his work, “Responsibility Determined: Assessing the Relationship between the Doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect and the Right of Self-Determination.”
“We’re very happy with the outcome of the event,” said Andrew Coleman, president of the University of Ottawa chapter of CLAIHR. “It shows that there’s a lot of interest in the topic, especially here in Ottawa.”
In addition to the discussion about Syria, the panellists also agreed that Canada, the country which was the principal sponsor of responsibility to protect, can and ought to be doing more to strengthen it on the world’s stage.
Kyle Matthews, the senior deputy director of the Will to Intervene Project at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, said one of the critical ways forward for R2P is to build domestic political will.
He argued that amassing the political will to move forward with R2P can begin with average citizens.
“[In Canada] we have rights to form civil society groups, to discuss this in universities,” he said. “We have free media, Internet. We have a lot of these rights and responsibilities that a lot of people across the world don’t have and we need to channel this in some way.”
Devanne O'Brien is a second-year law student at the University of Ottawa.