China’s stance on Syria, informed by use of responsibility to protect doctrine in Libya

Did regime-change overreach in Libya seal the awful fate that civilians have endured these last years in Syria? A new article in a Beijing-based law journal, China Legal Science, strongly argues “Yes.”

liAmong the 5 permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are 3 from the West – Britain, France, and the United States – plus China and Russia. The latter 2 countries have incurred much criticism for blocking Council action on Syria. ‘Way back in October 2011, for example, the United States’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, “storm[ed] out” after the latter 2 P-5 countries refused to join what she called “a watered-down resolution” against Syria. Criticism has tended to center around Russia’s commercial and geopolitical relationships with Syria. But the new article, “Responsibility to Protect: A Challenge to Chinese Traditional Diplomacy” (no. 1-2013, pp. 97-120), indicates that other concerns also have been at play. Asserts Dr. Zhu Wenqi, Professor of International Law at Renmin University (formerly a diplomat in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an attorney in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and holder of a doctorate from the University of Paris II):

‘The Council’s failure to take action in the Syrian case is because of reflections by China and Russia upon what happened after the resolutions adopted by the Security Council in the case of Libya.’

Zhu cites Resolution 1970 (Feb. 26, 2011), which imposed certain sanctions against Libya and referred the situation to the International Criminal Court, and Resolution 1973 (Mar. 17, 2011), which authorized member states “to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians.” China voted in favor of 1970 and abstained from voting on 1973. In positing “the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect” its people, each resolution invoked the responsibility to protect doctrine. With admirable clarity and conciseness, Zhu recounts the 15-year history of that doctrine, by which:

► 1st, each state has a duty to protect its own population; and

► 2d, should a state fail in its duty, the international community has the responsibility to step in and protect the threatened population.

What happened right after adoption of Resolution 1973? NATO mounted a many-month military operation, which ended only after Libya’s longtime ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, was deposed, put on the run, and ultimately killed. The Security Council had not made regime change an explicit aim in either Resolution 1970 or Resolution 1973; a month into the intervention, however, an op-ed by the leaders of the Western P-5 members insisted that Gaddafi “must go, and go for good.” Zhu writes that this ouster effort led China to criticize the resolutions as “pretextual” and as costly in the numbers of civilians harmed.

The Libya lesson has prompted China to resist calls for intervention in Syria, Zhu states. (credit for AP photo above, captioned “Chinese Ambassador to the UN Li Baodong sitting with his hands down as Security Council members vote on resolution to back an Arab League call for Syria’s Assad to step down, Feb. 4, 2012”) What’s more, it has led China to revert to skepticism toward the doctrine of responsibility to protect. In an account that echoes writings of Judge Xue Hanqin on which I recently posted, Zhu sets out not only the value that China places on the sovereignty guarantees in Article 2(4), (7) of the U.N. Charter, but also the relation of that value to the desire to maintain independence from “‘the remnants of imperialist and colonialist oppression'” (quoting the late Wang Tieya). Quoting from this article, Zhu writes that China’s opposition to regime change in Syria is seen as reinforcing the Charter:

‘In the eyes of many Chinese evaluators, China’s attitude toward the Syrian issue actually demonstrated that China “is assuming more responsibilities and obligations” in international affairs.’

Amid this week’s reports that the United States may be backing off from demands for the resignation of Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, the article is timely – and its explication of the Chinese legal perspective on global security has value any time.

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