The upcoming Russia-U.S. conference on Syria is to be applauded and requires careful consideration and support. After months of stalling, there is again a renewed sense of hope that international action might be taken to respond to the two-year conflict in Syria.

It is therefore an important time to remind President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Kerry’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that there is already an established framework that should be used to guide the discussion. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was supported unanimously by United Nations member states in 2005. This doctrine, shortened as R2P, formalizes the global interest to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. It is an international commitment that serves both to redefine the sovereignty of states while recognizing their responsibilities to protect civilians. The responsibility applies to all states and all populations.

The world, including the United States, has thus far failed on fulfilling this responsibility in Syria. On several occasions, Obama has declared that if the regime used chemical weapons, or even prepared to use them, it would be crossing a “red line.” However, that promise appears to ring hollow. It has been suggested that Syrian President Bashar Assad is ramping up his attacks as the rest of the world remains uninspired to act in the face of overwhelming violence and human suffering. Casualties now count above 70,000, and an estimated 6.8 million people require humanitarian assistance both inside and outside of Syria’s borders. This is nothing short of a catastrophe, one that will leave its imprint on Syrians and the region for generations to come.

By now, everyone must understand that what has crippled any kind of legitimate intervention in Syria has been the stalemate taking place in the U.N. Security Council, an impasse created and maintained by both China and Russia. I would argue that this corrupts the use of the veto and points to the need of Security Council reform, as it has been demonstrated time and again that the current configuration prevents the council from following through on its mandate. But that is over the long run. This meeting between the United States and Russia — in part the outcome of pressure applied by a group of former foreign ministers led by Madeleine Albright — is currently our greatest opportunity to seek common ground so that we can move forward. At this point, the addition of chemical weapons makes for an even more complex situation within which to intervene. However (echoing the sentiments of many others): How long will we allow Assad to test our political limits?

Given the urgency of the matter, I’d like to recommend a few actions that can be taken immediately.

• First, urge Damascus to reduce barriers to the provision of humanitarian aid. Currently, the government is restricting access to urgently needed medical organizations.

• Second, pledged funding for these operations needs to be fulfilled. In early April, UNICEF made an emergency plea to donors for more funding, without which it risked having to end its assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan. Establishing a solid foundation for humanitarian response also will mean that we will be better prepared to assist in the transition from war once the violence ends. This, at least, does not require military strength.

• Third, the United States and Russia should request that the Security Council refer the question of crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court.

To date, R2P has been underexplored and largely misunderstood by elements of the U.S. government. Arguably, this is due to its association with military intervention. Therefore, it is also important to remind U.S. leaders that the cornerstone of R2P is prevention, which doesn’t require the use of force. A recent report by the Center for American Progress makes the case that climate change, drought and the resulting food insecurity are linked to the social upheaval of the Arab Spring. This suggests that identifying and building up resilience in the face of environmental, political and social challenges should be a priority.

In the future, every effort should be made to take action at the sign of early warning so we can avoid crises like that which we now face in Syria. Finally, let us work toward a day when we no longer prop up or allow tyrants to inflict this level of suffering on their own people. President Obama, we’re waiting.


Lloyd Axworthy is president and vice chancellor of the University of Winnipeg and the former foreign minister of Canada.