The Blog

Syria and the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis: A Failure of International Responsibilities

In Europe, there are attempts to remove even the humanitarian framing - identifying hundreds of thousands of people as migrants who simply want to come to take our jobs, rather than as those who are in desperate need of protection and other assistance. This is a dramatic failure of responsibility at all levels of political leadership.

The crisis of humanity we see in the Mediterranean and Europe is part of a much larger complex of issues related to how the international community deals with war, atrocities and humanitarian crises. The situation where hundreds of thousands of refugees which have come knocking at Europe's doors is the logical consequence of an international system which has developed many mechanisms to cope with the human rights and humanitarian fallout of war but which does not follow through in implementation.

The international community has developed and recognised three core types of responses and international responsibilities for conflict and associated humanitarian crises, namely military responses, judicial responses, and humanitarian responses - what I call the responsibility to protect, prosecute and palliate.

The responsibility to protect (R2P) says that states have the primary responsibility to protect their own people from genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. But if they fail - or are responsible for such crimes themselves - the international community must step in to protect people. This doctrine was first formulated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001, and was formally recognised by the UN at the 2005 World Summit. It is directly connected to a broader conceptual shift in the relationship between sovereignty and human rights. R2P includes many different types of activities, but the most important and game-changing aspect of the World Summit declaration was that the international community was prepared to use military force to protect people from being slaughtered. It has been invoked in UN Security Council resolutions more than 25 times since 2006.

The responsibility to prosecute involves the idea that states and the international community generally have a responsibility to prevent impunity for mass atrocities. Those most responsible for such crimes must be punished. While this idea has found expression in a number of ways, the most important development has been the permanent international institutionalisation of the responsibility to prosecute in the International Criminal Court which can prosecute individuals for mass atrocities.

The provision of food, water, shelter, and medical assistance to those caught up in conflict is the third type of response used in all armed conflicts and associated humanitarian crises. I call it the responsibility to palliate because, like palliative health care which is focused on treating symptoms and keeping people comfortable rather than curing disease, humanitarianism is focused on keeping people alive on a day to day basis rather than addressing the underlying causes of the conflict and displacement.

Why is this important for the refugee crisis today in Syria, Europe and elsewhere? The conflict in Syria is political and military in nature, but the response has been primarily humanitarian. Russia and China have blocked invocation and application of R2P in Syria. Yet, countries such as the US and UK, which have contemplated unilateral military action to protect civilians, have also decided in the end that it is not in their interest to do so. The international community has failed in its responsibility to protect civilians in Syria.

Russia and China have also prevented a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Such a referral, which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has just called for, while not immediately leading to a resolution of the conflict, would put additional pressure on President Assad and other parties to the conflict to stop targeting civilians. And it might induce some senior commanders to defect to avoid ending up in The Hague. More generally, it would signal that the world is serious about stopping impunity for gross violations of human rights. The international community has failed in its responsibility to prosecute and hold people accountable for atrocities in Syria.

Where the international community has failed a little bit less is in the humanitarian response. Yet, even this slightly lesser failure creates its own problems. Because the conflict is frequently framed in humanitarian terms, other considerations - such as actually protecting people from direct violence - are lost in the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis. It is easy to be numbed to the reality of the situation when statistics are cited - 4.1 million people have fled the country. 7.6 million have been internally displaced, and a total of 12.2 million are in need of assistance. At the same time, while just under $1 billion has been provide for the UN's Strategic Response Plan for Syria, it is still $1.9 billion short. The focus becomes the amount of money spent, the amount of food provided, and the urgency of getting access to populations, rather than actually protecting people.

The failure has been compounded by the response in Europe. EU leaders have recently pledged €1 billion in additional humanitarian assistance to help those in the region. While welcome, it still falls short of the need and, more importantly serves to avoid dealing with the humanitarian crisis on its shores. More than 520,000 people have landed on the shores of Europe in 2015 after crossing, at great peril, the Mediterranean, with more crossing over land. 55% of these are from Syria.

What has been the response? While Germany initially said that it would welcome up to 500,000 asylum seekers a year, it has backtracked. More generally, many countries have denied that this is a refugee crisis - instead arguing that most are just 'migrants' who are looking for better economic opportunities. They have also closed borders, put up fences or attempted to shift the burden to other countries (including those in the region like Lebanon and Jordan, which have born the brunt of the crisis and where refugees now account for 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 of their populations). While many European countries have agreed to resettle a total of 120,000 refugees, other countries, such as the UK, have opted out. The UK, instead, wants to cherry pick a small number of the most suitable refugees to resettle directly from the region. And the 120,000 hardly responds to the scope of the crisis - a crisis which has no end in sight.

In Syria, the crisis is frequently put in humanitarian terms and the response has been humanitarian. Internationally-recognised responsibilities to protect people at risk of atrocities and to punish those who commit atrocities have been ignored. Palliation substitutes for protection. In Europe, there are attempts to remove even the humanitarian framing - identifying hundreds of thousands of people as migrants who simply want to come to take our jobs, rather than as those who are in desperate need of protection and other assistance. This is a dramatic failure of responsibility at all levels of political leadership.

Dr. Kurt Mills is Senior Lecturer in International Human Rights and author of the recently published book International Responses to Mass Atrocities in Africa: Responsibility to Protect, Prosecute and Palliate.