At the end of UNA-UK’s Youth Conference in Edinburgh in February, delegates were asked whether they believed the responsibility to protect (R2P) principle had ever made a difference, and after a day of engaging with UN experts on the issue only 31 per cent of respondents believed that it had. The lack of confidence in the legal capacity of R2P is nothing new. However, even its staunchest critics could not have predicted the decline in credibility R2P would come to suffer among new generations – one that famously emerged from Kofi Annan’s 2000 We the Peoples report. In the preface of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocity in Our Times, Desmond Tutu and Václav Havel define R2P as “a clear and unequivocal public commitment by world leaders that can and will prevent mass atrocities”.
But in light of the devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - although pre-dating any legal invocation of R2P - young people have increasingly begun to question the aptitude of their world leaders in making such judgements, and have been calling out for a say in the matter.
The cause of the most recent and prominent controversy on R2P is the war in Syria, which is considered by the UN to be the worst humanitarian disaster since the Rwandan genocide. If we reflect carefully on the events in late summer of 2013, objections from within the Security Council’s permanent five (P5) members on intervention did not solely come from Russia and China. Social media campaigners, academics and the general public in the UK, the US, France and beyond were divided too, giving rise to the #HandsOffSyria movement on social media.
The simultaneous decision of UK Prime Minister David Cameron to put intervention in Syria to a Parliamentary vote seemed to add further weight to the people’s voice on R2P. As events unfolded and public support waned, President Obama promised to also put military action to a vote in Congress, and even in France, which had already offered to take part in such action, people were calling out for a similar vote.
Whether it was the dwindling credibility of Western leaders, the strain on resources due to the economic crisis or the ”we cannot be sure what is happening on the ground” argument eerily reminiscent of the war in Bosnia, “we the peoples” were increasingly coming out against humanitarian intervention. For those of us who believe that the people of Syria should enjoy the same freedoms as we do, it may have seemed paradoxically defeating that exercising our own democratic freedom meant that we rejected our responsibility to protect Syrians in pursuance of that goal.
If world leaders, particularly those of the P5 countries, are to deflect the responsibility to protect as Prime Minister Cameron has effectively done, there should also be a responsibility to engage in informed and nuanced debate. In order to foster high quality discussion in a world increasingly reliant on social media trends, we must do our utmost to educate young people on humanitarian affairs. The #Kony2012 movement demonstrated how easy it is to manoeuvre mass activism through social media. Although #HandsOffSyria had considerable support among academics and activists alike, the danger of one-sided social media movements hindering historic debate on humanitarian intervention is likely greater than we realise.
We must remember that social media does not accurately reflect the full spectrum of opinion or expertise, but in fact cultivates popular bias. Audiences are reached by succumbing to the hashtag of the moment and once opinions turn into trends, fact-checking is futile. In addition to filtering out dissenting opinion, social media is increasingly becoming the source of news stories rather than the outlet. If we the peoples wish to have a say on R2P in a world where humanitarian intervention comes under the irresponsibly presumed scrutiny of social media and popular opinion, we also have a responsibility to inform, educate and debate. This also means using our hashtags responsibly.
Emil Ahmagic is currently volunteering as Membership Administration & Projects Intern at UNA-UK. You can follow him on Twitter at @emilahmagic.