The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS) is wreaking havoc in Iraq, committing atrocities and leaving death and destruction in its wake.
According to recent data from the United Nations, Iraq saw at least 1,571 civilian casualties with an additional 1,763 wounded in the month of June alone. Furthermore, there has been broad displacement of people, with numbers upwards of 600,000 since the beginning of June. More recently, concern has heightened over ISIL’s threat to the non-Muslim populations in Mosul, giving them an ultimatum to leave, convert to Islam, or pay a tax—if not, they risk execution. The threats have caused many civilians to flee.
Both the United States and the UN have come out forcefully against the actions of ISIL. While the United States condemned the actions, the UN issued a bold statement referencing the possibility that crimes against humanity are occurring in the region: “The members of the Security Council further recall that wide-spread or systematic attacks directed against any civilian populations because of their ethnic background, religious beliefs or faith may constitute a crime against humanity, for which those responsible must be held accountable.”
Equally troubling is the evidence mounting over the recruitment and use of child soldiers within ISIL. General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian officer who watched helplessly as genocide unfolded in Rwanda in 1993 and who now heads the Child Soldier Initiative, noted that the use of child soldiers is very often an early warning sign for mass atrocities, referring to their use as “a significant catalyst in the advancement of a catastrophic scenario.”
In sum: ISIL continues to commit war crimes and is purposefully threatening and killing civilians, expelling minority groups, and recruiting child soldiers in its war for a caliphate in the region. Is it time to invoke for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Iraq?
Though some noted R2P scholars such as Gareth Evans, current co-chair of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, believe it’s too early to implement the principle’s last resort of military intervention, it is not too early to be discussing the principle as a whole—particularly its most important aspect, prevention. The global community has an opportunity to step outside its perpetual fear of preventative action and deal with Iraq before it becomes another Syria.
But intervention in this region will not come easily to the international community. The crux of the matter is this: the war in Iraq served to delegitimize any future intervention in the region, no matter the circumstance.
The doctrine of R2P aims to protect civilians from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The principle stipulates that the state first and foremost must protect its civilians from these four crimes. If the state is unable or unwilling to do so, it then becomes the responsibility of the international community to step in and protect those in harm’s way.
This principle has previously been implemented in places such as Darfur and Libya. The results are mixed. Supporters of the intervention in Libya portray it as a prime example of where R2P worked as intended to protect civilians from attacks by the Gaddafi regime, while others contend that regime change goes against the core purpose of the principle and the current chaos in the country can’t possibly qualify as a successful outcome.
In Darfur, the international community has struggled with successful civilian protection under R2P. As the first real test case for the principle, and with the introduction of the first United Nations/African Union Hybrid mission (UNAMID), the region has only seen moments of relief as the violence continues today. At this point in Darfur, the Janjaweed have reportedly returned, and civilian casualties are again on the rise.
Further, the UN has come under fire for covering up ongoing failures in the country to protect civilians in danger. The International Criminal Court has called for an investigation into the validity of human rights reports coming from UNAMID. According to Daniel Beleke of Human Rights Watch, “civilians in Darfur are being killed, and the allegations that peacekeepers looked the other way are devastating.”
The distractions of the “war on terror” were at the core of the U.S. failure to focus on legitimate humanitarian actions in Darfur. Washington hesitated to come down on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a counter-terrorism ally. As a result, the United States pinned all its hopes on the Navaisha peace deal, sidestepped calls for the arrest of Bashir, and favored incentives over sanctions for the leader of the genocide in Darfur.
Despite these failings, the cases of Libya and Darfur more or less fit the criteria defined by R2p supporters. Crimes that fell under the purview of R2P were being committed, the state in question was not living up to its responsibility to protect, and thus, they said, it became the responsibility of the international community to step in and protect the civilians in harm’s way.
R2P and Iraq
But scholars have largely agreed that the U.S. attempt to use the principle as a reasoning for its invasion of Iraq was glaringly illegitimate.
Ramesh Thakur, one of the original authors of R2P, has written in-depth on the complicated relationship between R2P and Iraq, explaining the controversy over the U.S. involvement in the country. “There was and remains confusion about the mix of U.S. President George W. Bush’s motives for war against Iraq,” he wrote. “But there is consensus that the humanitarian motive was adduced after the fact with the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or to establish credible links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden or 11 September.”
R2P is more than military intervention. It also involves root cause prevention, peacebuilding, and diplomacy. But the misuse of R2P in Iraq and the subsequent U.S. occupation of the country have permanently damaged the international community’s ability to implement any kind of legitimate intervention.
This is precisely why the creators of R2P addressed the extreme danger of misusing R2P, including the distortion of its purpose and reach. A prime contemporary example would be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s notion of his “responsibility to protect” all Russians in Ukraine. This flagrant misuse is not simply a danger to the sovereignty of the state at hand, but to the future legitimacy of the principle as well.
This struggle with legitimacy is going to haunt the international community as it attempts to deal with ongoing violence perpetrated by ISIL, especially as the group involves itself in Syria and the broader region. Although the United States can’t change history, it can still acknowledge prior failures in order not to repeat them. Rehashing the Iraq and R2P conversation and coming to a deeper understanding of how and why an illegitimate intervention was rationalized, we can begin to imagine what a less cynical intervention might look like to prevent mass atrocities in the future.