Most formulations of the responsibility to protect argue that governments lose their legitimacy and authority when they violate the social contract to protect their own populations from harm. This policy brief asks if the regime in Syria has forfeited its legitimacy by failing to protect attacks against civilians?

On Thursday March 28, a mortar attack in Damascus killed 15 university students. The scene after the attack —upended, shattered chairs and blood-splattered tables— was a testament to lives cut short with sudden cruelty. While it is diffi cult to verify whether government or rebel forces perpetrated this indiscriminate attack, it is certain that the current confl ict in Syria is replete with such atrocities. The greatest responsibility lies with the Syrian government, which is committing widespread and systematic attacks against civilians. If action is to be taken under the aegis of the responsibility to protect, is it enough to just stop the violations, or must the violator be removed from power?

“In some sense the responsibility to protect doctrine represents a shift of sovereignty from the government to the people.”

The failure to adequately respond to mass atrocities in Syria is ultimately a failure of political will. In this age of ubiquitous media, it is simply not possible to claim ignorance to the occurrence of mass atrocities. This is where the responsibility to protect is meaningful as a normative framework for action: the international community must shift its focus from the political interests of states to the protection of human life. Such a shift recognizes that the legitimacy of governments is itself derived from its citizens. In situations where the government acts as a violator of its citizens’ rights it no longer has the legitimacy to govern