President Obama declared that Bashar Al-Assad's use of chemical weapons on several thousand Syrian civilians (not the slaying and displacement of millions otherwise) was a breach of international norms so severe that use of force was justified. After Obama asked for congressional and UN Security Council backing, Congress and the British Parliament demurred. Then Assad's patron, Russia, brokered a deal to have the chemical weapons removed.
The message to Assad: America and the world won't use force to punish chemical weapons, and worse yet, if you want to get off untouched for mass atrocities committed with more ordinary weaponry, acquire and use some weapons of mass destruction as a bargaining chip for retaining power.
As UN Secretary General, norm entrepreneur Kofi Annan helped uncork the humanitarian doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect" ("R2P" in social media-ese).
In the wake of Bosnia and Rwanda, he asked Canada to host a commission on atrocities that, steered by its Australian co-chair Gareth Evans, coined that phrase in its 2001 report. Then in 2005, heads of state formally adopted R2P at the World Summit marking the 60th anniversary UN General Assembly.
R2P is said to consist of three pillars.
Pillar 1 is the responsibility of sovereign governments to help protect their citizenry from humanitarian calamities—naturally or especially human-caused. Most of all, a government should not itself be a party to war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or the "g" word—genocide. Let's call those "atrocities" as an umbrella term.
Pillar 2 involves the state seeking peaceful help from the international community to provide protection to their innocent citizens when it cannot do so on its own. In particular, the international community has the responsibility to offer that non-military humanitarian aid.
Pillar 3 is triggered when a government manifestly refuses to protect its people or is complicit in atrocities. Then the international community, with the authorization of the UN Security Council (according to the 2005 UN Summit), may use military force to intervene and stop the atrocities, even over the objection of the state in question. A state has broken its social contract with its people, shirking a basic obligation of sovereignty. Thus, its sovereignty dissolves, and intervention is justified.
Many observers are rightly concerned that not enough focus is placed upon Pillar 2 and that discussion leaps onto Pillar 3. Granted, use of force by outside actors should not be a reflexive early choice when other options are truly viable. But too often, other options are not viable.
The UN Security Council went beyond a generic affirmation of R2P to authorize the use of force when Muammar Qaddafi threatened his own people with a bloodbath, and Russia and China did not exercise their veto power. Now with "buyers remorse" over Libya, Russia and China stand in the way of a Security Council approval of Pillar 3 action in Syria.
So actually, rather than too much focus on Pillar 3 in place of Pillar 2, what is truly being neglected is an as yet unmentioned "Pillar 4." If R2P is such a solemn norm, to save the livelihoods of targets of atrocities, then Pillar 4 would represent unilateral or, better, collective action when the Security Council's approval is not forthcoming.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq gave intervention without explicit Security Council blessing a bad name. Despite the background of Saddam Hussein's 1980s gassing of Kurds in Iraq, weapons of mass destruction not materializing delegitimized the Coalition of the Willing intervention.
Yet Pillar 4 action is embodied by NATO bombing Serbia in 1998 to stem ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. After Russia blocked Security Council authorization of force against their Orthodox brethren in Serbia, NATO went ahead anyway under the last Democratic President before Obama.
The United States and the international community have the option to use military means to at least limit Assad's mayhem. Prudence is needed on what means to use, and time has been lost to, with Turkey, empower the more moderate elements of the armed opposition in Syria. But at the very least, Assad's military assets could be degraded.
After the Holocaust, the Genocide Convention gave the crime a name, and with it the world said "never again." U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has written the definitive study on how "again" happened in Cambodia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Bosnia, and Rwanda—to be followed by Sudan.
Even so, it is never too late for "never again." Better woefully late than never. The Kosovo precedent suggests we need to give R2P Pillar 4 a name—say, "R2P4"—and, more importantly, to use it.