Last week, former US Senator Chuck Hagel hosted current Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak at a forum on US-Russia relations in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. While the Russian Ambassador addressed several issues relevant to US-Russia relations at the forum, the most important issue that the capacity-audience raised, and that the Ambassador addressed, related to “the responsibility to protect.”
“The responsibility to protect,” or “R2P,” stands for the proposition that State sovereignty is not an absolute privilege; it is a qualified responsibility. R2P requires, first and foremost, that each State has the responsibility to protect its civilian populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. If a State is unable to protect its civilian population from these mass atrocity crimes, then R2P requires that the international community must (through the United Nations) peacefully assist the State in observing this responsibility by providing various “soft” measures, such as foreign aid and investment, economic incentives, and capacity building. If that fails, or if a State is “manifestly” unwilling to avoid (or is actively committing) such mass atrocity crimes, then R2P requires that the international community must (through the United Nations) coercively protect the civilian population of that State from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity on its own. These coercive measures may include everything from economic sanctions to military intervention.
When asked about Russia’s view on R2P – especially as it related to Syria – the Russian Ambassador appeared to completely reject the doctrine out of hand: “Countries must solve their own problems. The factions within Syria must solve their own issues. Both sides in Syria need to stop the violence. If Bashar Al-Assad is to go, then it is up to the Syrian people to decide whether he should go, not outsiders. This is a matter of principle. The Russian Federation does not believe that anyone should impose their views on a sovereign State.”
However, when the Ambassador was asked about Russia’s actions in 2008 in Georgia, the Ambassador adopted, perhaps unconsciously, the language of R2P when he attempted to justify Russia’s intervention: “The Georgian government was attacking its own citizens and we [Russia] had an obligation to intervene for the safety of the [Georgian] people.”
Thus, while many naysayers may contend that Russia is a consistent opponent (perhaps persistent objector?) to R2P, the facts demonstrate that Russia’s position towards civilian protection, whatever the semantics, depends not upon its view of international law, but upon its aim in geopolitics. As a result, it is too early for critics to say, “RIP R2P” when it comes to Russia, because, as it turns out, “R2P” may be the only legal justification for Russia’s geopolitical aims – with respect to Georgia or otherwise – in the future.