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Responsibility to Protect: Does the world have to help Syria?

Watch: Retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire discusses “Responsibility to Protect” and the options for response in Syria

VANCOUVER – UN member states are committed to protect citizens of countries whose governments aren’t guarding them from atrocities.

It’s called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and it’s an initiative all UN members agreed to in 2005, after having witnessed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and massacres in Bosnia – without acting fast enough to stop further bloodshed.

READ MORE: Canada’s Syrian expats feel strain of humanitarian crisis

Since 2006, it’s been invoked in resolutions pertaining to governments failing to protect civilians in South Sudan and Yemen, as well as in calling for military interventions in Ivory Coast and Libya.

With Western governments saying they have little doubt the Syrian regime launched a chemical attack on its own citizens last week, killing a reported 355 people and injuring another 3,600, it appears the world may now have a responsibility to protect Syrian civilians.

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An estimated 100,000 people have been killed since anti-government uprisings began in 2011.

READ MORE: UN experts in Syria return to area of alleged gas attack

“While the issue of chemical weapons is significant… In terms of atrocities, there’s nothing new in Syria,” said Dr. Payman Akhavan, an associate professor of international law at Montreal’s McGill University and a former legal adviser for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague.

He said the move to intervene is “rather late in the game.”

READ MORE: timeline: Syria’s uprising

The United States, United Kingdom and France have all discussed action or prepared military resources for a possible strike on Syria. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has gone so far as to say American forces are prepared to launch a strike at a moment’s notice.

Although armed intervention seems to be the only form of international response that’s on the table at the moment, Payman said it shouldn’t be the first or only option.

“The use of force should only be an option when all other options have failed,” he said in a phone interview.

READ MORE: U.K. Security Council backs Cameron on Syria

In agreeing to R2P, all governments committed to protecting their own populations from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

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Member nations also agreed that if a state fails to protect its citizens, the international community should act collectively in a ‘timely and decisive manner’ — through the UN Security Council and in accordance with the UN Charter — on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with regional organizations as appropriate.”

French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday became the first of the world’s leaders to use R2P as a reason to justify a potential intervention, Agence France-Presse reported.

Hollande did not point his finger directly at the Assad regime as the U.S. and U.K. have, but he did say the government was the likely culprit and “France is ready to punish those who took the vile decision to gas innocent people.”

“This civil war today threatens world peace,” he said, also announcing plans to increase military support to the Syrian opposition.

Meanwhile, four U.S. Navy destroyers have moved within range of Syria’s Mediterranean coast, but President Barack Obama has yet to announce definitive plans for a strike.

READ MORE: Experts weigh in: Should we intervene in Syria’s civil war?

“You need to be very clear on what force is being used for and understand the limits…. The use of force can only achieve so much,” Akhavan said.

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He said R2P was invoked to help justify the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011, which inevitably led to the downfall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but the decision to act came much earlier.
“The situation in Libya was one of intervening at the 11th hour to prevent a mass atrocity,” he said.

One factor that led to the Libya intervention going ahead was that Russia abstained from the UN Security Council vote.

READ MORE: Ban Ki-moon appeals for Syria diplomatic solution

It’s unlikely the Security Council will approve any action against the Assad regime because Syria-supporter Russia is a permanent member of the council and has veto power.

“If we have anyone to blame in all of this mess, it’s really Russia,” said Dr. Mansour El-Kikhia, Chair of the Dept. of Political Science and Geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Russia has stood behind the Assad regime, even placing the blame for the alleged chemical attack on opposition forces rather than the Syrian government.

El-Kikhia said as much as there is a call for foreign bodies to act on Syria, he questions whether that demand really matters.

When we discuss the “international community,” he said, we’re really just talking about the five powers that control the Security Council: China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia.

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“I don’t think [a] strike will solve the problem that is facing us,” he said. “[But] ultimately the only way to solve Syria’s problems is for the regime to go.”

While all eyes are on how or when the U.S. and other nations will act, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said there are no plans to put soldiers on the ground and regime change isn’t something the U.S. is planning to attempt.

“[Our options] are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons,” Carney said in a press briefing on Tuesday. But he added “Syria’s future must be one that is without Assad in power.”

WATCH:  White House weighing all options for Syrian response

Even if intervention led to regime change, in one way or another, Akhavan said there will have to be some sort of negotiation for Syria to move forward and find a solution to the conflict.

“We should not have the illusion that bombing is going to create a democratic society,” Akhavan said.

“Building democratic institutions takes time and wherever possible it’s preferable to avoid a sudden collapse of the state.”

“The tragedy is that anyone with some foresight would have seen this two years ago, before 100,000 people had to be killed [and] before we would have been confronted with a long-term, very serious security threat to the region,” Akhavan said.

For our ongoing coverage of the crisis in Syria by clicking here