Paragraph 139 of the United Nations charter regarding the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in ethnoreligious conflicts states that the international community uses appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity (n.d.). However, it also asserts that it is ultimately the state’s responsibility to protect its populace first, but the international community will assist in preventing the above human rights violations. Military intervention is not a component of this R2P strategy, which the impacted state could view as a violation of its sovereignty. Therefore, it should be considered a last resort after using IGO (International Government Organization) peacekeepers and other MARO (Mass Atrocity Response Operation) alternatives first (Massingham 2009).
While not an ethnic conflict, one could say that U.S. and NATO material support of the Free Syrian Army and anti-Da’esh campaign fall into the R2P category but are not nearly as aggressive as was undertaken in Libya against Gaddafi’s forces during the 2011 Arab Spring. The issue with the military intervention of R2P is that the follow-on stability operations often fall far short and create just as severe humanitarian crises in their wake. The concern was that the ruling party would commit atrocities against protestors and rebel forces in Libya. It necessitated a military response by NATO forces, primarily due to Gaddafi’s rhetoric regarding the uprising (Perišić 2017).
By contrast, Al-Assad was far more restrained in his public statements but has engaged in far more egregious actions against his populace, such as deploying chemical weapons in FSA-controlled areas. One of the main reasons to avoid military R2P intervention in Syria is that other geopolitical implications would hinder a unified effort. While Libya did not hold strategic value beyond the E.U. and NATO, Syria also has immense strategic significance to Russia, China, and Iran, which support the Assad regime. Therefore, any military R2P would further divide the international community and catalyst a more significant conflict threatening global security (Nuruzzaman 2013).
With the Syrian and Libyan cases in mind, the U.N. charter and similar international agreements intended to prevent or mitigate ethnocentric and religious intra- and interstate conflicts before they devolve into a humanitarian crisis or armed conflict. Third-party conciliators can engage both parties in “preventative diplomacy” to set up peace zones, mediate disputes, and help establish confidence-building measures (Lund 2009). These external parties should generally be impartial or neutral for more meaningful and long-lasting resolutions to the strife.
Unfortunately, as briefly described in the Syrian example, there are many occasions where this impartiality or neutrality is absent in the face of other geopolitical or hegemonic goals of the mediators (Bercovitch 2009). For example, Nissen and Waage (2015) attribute the success of Norway in the Oslo Accords and Guatemalan civil strife because it being a “weak state.” These authors suggested that because it was not as powerful politically or militarily as the U.S. or Soviet Union, their attempts to mediate and find a peaceful resolution were more legitimate and sincere. Bercovitch contends that no third-party mediator is ever genuinely neutral or impartial; however, those with less self-interested motivators can negotiate more meaningful and lasting agreements and conflict resolutions (2009).
Finally, another element one finds commonplace in ethnoreligious and other intra- and interstate armed engagements is the mass displacement of people fleeing persecution, which is why early diplomatic intervention is essential to long-lasting solutions. As a result, host nations welcoming diasporic peoples can manifest ethnocentric and religious conflicts despite altruistic intent.
For example, Finland, which had predominately been an emigration state, suddenly found itself with a massive influx of immigrants and refugees fleeing the fighting in the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) discussed in the previous cases (Croucher, Aalto, Hirvonen, and Sommier 2013). The significant increase of predominately Muslim immigrants with a significantly different culture, language barriers, and perceived economic needs, placed the two groups in a position for strife.
Croucher et al. (2013) similarly contend that these cultural and ideological differences would lead to perceived realistic threats, symbolic threats, negative stereotypes, and intergroup anxiety could lead to radicalization and clashes between host country nationals and the immigrant community. This assessment aligns with a 2007 New York Police Department analysis by Silber and Bhatt discussing radicalization within Muslim communities in Western liberal democracies and the associated domestic and international security threats.
In closing, a military option beyond training and material support for R2P efforts in ethnic and religious conflicts is a last resort option when other preventative diplomatic and humanitarian alternatives exist to achieve a peaceful, lasting resolution between rival parties. The failings post-uprising in Libya and the ongoing issues in Syria, where the international community did not legitimately attempt non-combat conflict resolution methods are examples.
The lack of meaningful intervention or non-violent solutions contributed to more widespread intrastate conflicts. Moreover, as millions of migrants and refugees fled to Europe and elsewhere, it spurned culture clashes with the host nations’ populace, who saw the immigrants as a perceived threat. Similarly, diaspora members felt prejudiced against or marginalized, and both parties became more prone to radicalization, extremism, and violence.
Bercovitch, Jacob. 2009. “Mediation and Conflict Resolution.” In The SAGE Handbook of Conflict Resolution, by Jacob Bercovitch, Victor Kremenyuk and I. William Zartman, 340-357. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Croucher, Stephen M., Johannes Aalto, Sarianna Hirvonen, and Mélodine Sommier. 2013. “Integrated Threat and Intergroup Contact: An Analysis of Muslim Immigration to Finland.” Human Communication 16 (2): 109–20.
Lund, Michael S. 2009. “Conflict Prevention: Theory in Pursuit of Policy and Practice.” In The SAGE Handbook of Conflict Resolution, by Jacob Bercovitch, Victor Kremenyuk and I. William Zartman, 287-321. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Massingham, Eve. 2009. “Military Intervention for Humanitarian Purposes: Does the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine Advance the Legality of the Use of Force for Humanitarian Ends?” International Review of the Red Cross 91 (876) (12): 803-831.
Nissen, Ada, and Hilde Henriksen Waage. 2015. “Weak Third Parties and Ripening: Revisiting Norwegian Interventions in Guatemala and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” International Negotiation 20 (3): 389–413. doi:10.1163/15718069-12341314.
Nuruzzaman, Mohammed. 2013. “The “Responsibility to Protect” Doctrine: Revived in Libya, Buried in Syria.” Insight Turkey 15 (2): 57-66.
Perišić, Petra. 2017. “Implications of the Conflicts in Libya and Syria for the “Responsibility to Protect” Doctrine.” Zbornik Pravnog Fakulteta u Zagrebu 67 (5): 783-814.
Silber, Mitchell D., and Arvin Bhatt. 2007. Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. New York City, NY: Intelligence Division, New York Police Department. https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/Justice/20090000.Radicalization.in.the.West-Statement.of.Clarification.pdf.
United Nations. n.d. Responsibility to Protect. United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/about-responsibility-to-protect.shtml.
Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.
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