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Responsibility to protect

Interview: Kersten Knipp / bkMay 18, 2013

Political scientist and public intellectual Michael Ignatieff says the international community has a duty to intervene in Syria. He told DW that he sees signs of the emergence of new global security architecture.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff speaks at a townhall discussion during a campaign stop in London, Ontario, March 31, 2011. AFP PHOTO / Goeff ROBINS (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)
Michael IgnatieffImage: Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images

DW: Mr. Ignatieff, some time ago you and other political scientists developed the concept of "responsibility to protect," which states that in the case of particularly grave human rights the international community is obliged to intervene in a country's internal affairs. How does that apply to the situation in Syria?

Michael Ignatieff: Syria is a case where we're now into the third year of a bloody conflict in which the Syrian regime is using artillery and aircraft to attack civilian populations. Their security forces and their militias are staging obvious and horrifying massacres. So from a "responsibility to protect" point of view this is a case where a state has forfeited its right to be left alone and betrayed its responsibilities. And the question is whether the international community will do anything to stop it. I certainly hope they will, because the alternative is a bloody civil war in which the casualty rate will go from what it is now, some 70,000 or 80,000, to 100,000 or 150,000. And a crucial state in a crucial part of the world may break up.

Russiaand the US are planning another Syria conference. What do you expect to come out of it?

The world is split in two on this issue, but I don't think that prevents Russia and the United States getting together at the conference and deciding that their interests converge sufficiently to stop this horrible massacre of civilians and the potential destruction of Syria itself.

The dramatic issue now is whether President Putin decides it's in his interests for Russia to become part of the solution to the problem in Syria as opposed to an obstacle to its solution, and under pressure from the Germans and other people begin to move the parties to - at first - a ceasefire and then a transitional administration that would see the departure of the Assad regime, and that would preserve the integrity of the Syrian state and the key institutions of the Syrian state - the army, the security, the judiciary.

Presumably also so that we can get a solution that would potentially get some international peacekeepers in place that would prevent revenge massacres. What's going to have to happen is some international stabilization force - perhaps which Germany could take a part in, or my country Canada could take a part - to make sure that these people don't kill each other and begin to cooperate in some political process. But I don't want to sound naïve; I know that the chances of this are slight.

UN Security Council, New York. Photo: Soeren Stache
Ignatieff says the UN risks becoming irrelevant if the Security Council doesn't expandImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The West has been discussing the possibility of an intervention for months. What do you make of the idea?

People have to understand there has been intense intervention in Syria already. From the Saudis and Qataris supporting the Sunni militias and arming them and also encouraging some of the more extreme Islamist groups. The Iranians and the Russians on their side have been supporting the Assad regime. Hezbollah has also been supporting the Assad regime, and western international aid has been humanitarian, and there has been some supply of non-lethals. What now needs to happen is an international conference where all the parties involved are not necessarily at the table, but they're consulted and brought in to a search for a solution. Because it can't be in anyone's interests to have Syria collapse as a state and for there to be millions of refugees flowing across international borders. That can't be in the interest of a regional power like Turkey. And it can't be in the interest of Israel, for example, to have a failed state on its border.

The Syrian conflict has shown how regional conflicts can have a global impact. What does that mean for global security structures in the future? Potential superpowers of the future, like the BRIC countries, are already standing ready.

Everybody thinks that we can't go on in the 21st century with the international order controlled by the victors' club from 1945. There are all kinds of emerging states, like India or Brazil, that should be represented in the UN Security Council. Africa, Asia and Latin America should have representation. Everybody can see that this would in fact strengthen the legitimacy of the international legal order, although of course it might make getting agreement in the Security Council more difficult. I remain hopeful that the P5, the big powers, will eventually decide on a strategy of enlargement that they can all agree upon. The alternative is a world in which the UN is entirely bypassed and entirely irrelevant. At the moment we've got an old, increasingly illegitimate Security Council blocking action in an urgent humanitarian case, where stopping a civil war is a humanitarian necessity but also a strategic one.

So the new powers would give the Security Council a new legitimacy. Would it also give it new political impetus, in your opinion?

Well, American power is in comparative decline. These are powers that are rising in the world, and it's time for them to step up and accept their responsibilities. And these do include international peace and security. They do include making sure that the Middle East is stabilized. It will take them a while to become contributors, but when they do, I'm sure that they will play a constructive role. And I think they will also change what we regard as an important issue. As southern countries become more important in the international architecture of our security, they'll be raising issues like poverty and hopefully climate change. They'll be raising issues about the global division of resources and labor. In other words, as they take their place at the international table, the table will change, and the shape of what we talk about at that table will change. And that seems to me a really good thing.

Michael Ignatieff, born in Toronto in 1947, is a historian, author, politician and journalist. He was leader of the Liberal Party of Canada from 2008 to 2011, and a member of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty that developed the concept of "responsibility to protect" at the beginning of the millennium. Ignatieff was a guest at an event hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany.