Research and Politics
April-June 2017: 1 –10
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Conflict management has been at the heart of multilateral
debates since the advent of international organizations.
After WWII, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)
was established as the chief forum in which states discuss
and decide on its scope and forms. Although non-interven-
tion largely held sway during the Cold War, discussions of
humanitarian intervention intensified in the 1990s. In 2005,
the UN established the political commitment known as
responsibility to protect (R2P), which laid out the condi-
tions under which the international community was required
to intervene on behalf of beleaguered populations, some-
times through force. In what is seen as a key test of R2P,
the permanent five members (P5) of the UNSC—China,
France, Russia, the UK and the US—have disagreed pro-
foundly over the handling of the Syrian civil war (Gifkins,
2012; Hehir, 2013, 2016).
Scholars disagree about the impact of R2P and similar
norms on policies (Bellamy, 2008; Breau, 2006; Hehir,
2013). In this paper, we propose a model for how such a
norm might function rhetorically based on framing theory
(Burke, 1969; Entman, 2004; Garrison, 2001; Lakoff,
1999). If political actors successfully frame an event as a
problem invoking a given norm, then certain policy solu-
tions become thinkable, if not inevitable. We argue that
this has implications for how states talk about civil con-
flict management. Namely, conflict management rhetoric
can be mapped onto a two-dimensional space, where one
dimension corresponds to problem definition (does the
conflict involve human rights violations?), and the other
to solution identification (is the preferred solution inter-
vention?). Under R2P, a conflict involving large scale
human rights violations such as ethnic cleansing or war
crimes requires an urgent international response.
Consequently, we can expect that state agents engaged in
“human rights violations talk” are also likely to engage in
Rhetoric of civil conflict management:
United Nations Security Council debates
over the Syrian civil war
Juraj Medzihorsky1, Milos Popovic2 and Erin K. Jenne1
This paper introduces a spatial model of civil conflict management rhetoric to explore how the emerging norm of
responsibility to protect shapes major power rhetorical responses to civil war. Using framing theory, we argue that
responsibility to protect functions like a prescriptive norm, such that representing a conflict as one of (1) human rights
violations (problem definition), implies rhetorical support for (2) coercive outside intervention (solution identification).
These dimensions reflect the problem-solution form of a prescriptive norm. Using dictionary scaling with a dynamic
model, we analyze the positions of UN Security Council members in debates over the Syrian Civil War separately for
each dimension. We find that the permanent members who emphasized human rights violations also used intervention
rhetoric (UK, France, and the US), and those who did not used non-intervention rhetoric (Russia and China). We
conclude that, while not a fully consolidated norm, responsibility to protect appears to have structured major power
rhetorical responses to the Syrian Civil War.
Conflict management, framing, responsibility to protect, Syrian Civil War, text scaling, UN Security Council
1Central European University, Hungary
2Columbia University, USA
Juraj Medzihorsky, Central European University, Nador u. 9, Budapest,
702982RAP0010.1177/2053168017702982Research & PoliticsMedzihorsky et al.
2 Research and Politics
“intervention talk”. To locate states in this space, we
extend dictionary-based logistic scaling (Lowe et al.,
2011) with a Bayesian dynamic model for noisy and
We apply the model to the UNSC debates over how to
respond to the Syrian civil war. Under the logic of R2P,
states’ rhetorical positions on the two dimensions should
be related. To avoid assumptions about the dimensions’
relationship, we conduct the text analysis separately for
each dimension and then examine the relationship. With
some exceptions, we see that there is a clear correlation
between state positions on the two rhetorical dimensions.
We also find that while states leaning toward intervention
tended to acknowledge human rights violations, not all of
those who acknowledged them advocated intervention.
Focusing on the P5, we find that the US, the UK and
France favored both “violations talk” and “intervention
talk” in these debates, while Russia and China largely
avoided both. Beginning in 2014, Russia and China
increasingly began speaking of violations, although per-
petrated by ISIS rather than the government. Russia’s
uptick in “intervention talk” corresponded with its 2015
military deployment. In contrast, China has consistently
favored non-military solutions to the conflict, despite its
increased “violations talk.” This break with the model’s
rhetorical expectations is unsurprising given China’s
ongoing resistance to the R2P norm.
Rhetorical space of international civil
Framing in international relations
Scholars have long observed that how political leaders
talk about an event or issue greatly influences their audi-
ence’s beliefs about the appropriate policies to follow.
Framing is a form of rhetorical action used by policy-
makers to persuade their audiences that an event or issue
is a problem of a particular kind, prescribing a particular
response (Entman, 2004; Lakoff, 1999). In doing so, they
may employ salient historical metaphors or other tropes to
inculcate in the audience a need for urgent policy response.
The effect of this rhetoric is amplified by both the emo-
tional resonance of the frame and its opacity. If success-
ful, framing firmly attaches to the issue, closing or
preempting debate and making the adoption of a certain
set of policies that much more likely.
This problem-solution logic of such framing closely cor-
responds to that of prescriptive norms, which are explicit or
implicit rules stating that a certain set of actions or non-
actions should be taken in a given situation. Constructivist
scholars have demonstrated the power of norms in guiding
policy and actions at both the national and international
level. They have traced, for example, the emergence and
spread of norms regarding the use of certain weapons,
slavery and child labor (see Checkel, 1998; Finnemore and
Sikkink, 2001; Keck and Sikkink, 1998; Price, 1998; Risse,
2000; Tannenwald, 1999). Their research shows that norms
have a life-cycle, from emerging to consolidated (internal-
ized). However, a norm need not be fully consolidated to be
effective, so long as the costs of violating the norm are
deemed sufficiently high (Krebs and Jackson, 2007). Even
if political actors pay lip service to the norm for instru-
mental reasons, this can lead to “rhetorical coercion” or
“rhetorical entrapment” (Schimmelfennig, 2000) by which
the speaker is “trapped” or “coerced” into following the
logic of the norm to avoid the audience costs of failing to do
so. When preferences over policy conflict, policy-makers
compete to achieve interpretive dominance over an issue.
Most of the literature on foreign policy framing focuses on
such contests on the domestic level. For example, Weldes
and Saco (1996) describe interpretive struggles over “the
Cuban problem” in the US Congress and the White House.
Similarly, Paris (2002) captures how the pro- and anti-
intervention advocates in the US government used differ-
ent metaphors to frame the Kosovo conflict in 1999 to
promote their preferred policies.
We extend this logic to the international level, arguing
that the R2P norm has structured the rhetorical space in
which different state agents contest the appropriate form of
civil conflict management. Although R2P may not be fully
consolidated in the sense of being internalized by all state
actors, it performs a vital “regulative function” by requiring
states opposed to intervention to engage in interpretive
struggles over the nature of the conflict itself as a way of
promoting their favored policy.
The UNSC is the appropriate forum in which to examine
these struggles because, while it generally suffers from
legitimacy deficit among UN member states (Binder and
Heupel, 2015), it is the principal organ for shaping and
coordinating responses to international and civil crises.
Both permanent and non-permanent members perceive the
Council as the appropriate venue in which to explain their
policies (Thompson, 2006). Despite their more limited
powers, non-permanent members use prior consultations
and sessions to reach out to the P5 or wider audiences
(Hurd, 2002). The UNSC also serves to authorize the use of
force, in turn influencing state behavior in the international
arena (Voeten, 2005). The language used at the UNSC has
been analyzed from a similar perspective by Hehir (2016)
and Gifkins (2016), who inspected the documents approved
by the Council for R2P’s influence.
Framing conflict management
Before proceeding to the analysis, some background on the
Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm is in order. R2P holds
that the international community has an obligation to pro-
tect vulnerable groups from extreme human rights viola-
tions such as war crimes, genocide, or politicide. Already
Medzihorsky et al. 3
before R2P, some military interventions were justified on
grounds of human and minority rights protection
(Finnemore, 2004; Krasner, 1999). Humanitarian framing
often accompanied calls for military intervention (Labonte,
2013) on the grounds that it is an emergency situation
requiring prompt, forceful response (Bostdorff, 1994).
The R2P principle itself originates from a 2001 report by
the International Commission on intervention and state
sovereignty, which holds that when a sovereign state cannot
or will not protect its citizens from mass atrocities, the
international community has the responsibility to protect
them, through force if necessary (Garwood-Gowers, 2016).
In 2005, the UN General Assembly formally accepted the
responsibility of the international community to protect
civilians in case any of its member states failed to meet that
responsibility. Many states objected strongly to R2P’s
“third pillar”, which establishes a positive mandate to
respond through force as a last resort. China and Russia in
particular have argued that the Western P3 could use the
doctrine to justify serial interventions driven by self inter-
ests, and that codifying R2P in international law will lead to
more, rather than fewer, military interventions resulting in
instability and loss of life (Goodman, 2006). In 2009, how-
ever, both the General Assembly and the P5 approved the
doctrine, including its controversial third pillar.
Given the intensity of these debates over the principle
itself, many doubted that R2P would have any impact on
intervention practices. Following its adoption, the first
major test of the principle was the Syrian civil war. The
question was whether R2P would influence the positions
of the major powers on the conflict, including major crit-
ics of the doctrine, following the logic of rhetorical entrap-
ment. If an R2P norm is operative, we should see state
agents follow its problem-solution logic in UNSC debates
over the Syrian war.
We map the UNSC debates on Syria on a two-dimen-
sional rhetorical space. The first dimension defines the
problem posed by the conflict. If policy-makers succeed in
framing conflict in terms of human rights violations, this
implies that the state has failed in its responsibility to pro-
tect the population. Following R2P, those who acknowl-
edge the violations should also be more likely to frame the
solution in terms of intervention, which is captured on the
Our spatial model has much in common with many other
spatial models in the discipline (see e.g. Benoit and Laver,
2012; Laver, 2014). Most often, spatial models are used to
characterize directly unobservable policy preferences of
actors, and require assumptions that are difficult to test in
some contexts, such as the characteristics of actors’ utility
functions (Krehbiel and Peskowitz, 2015). Our model does
not aim to automatically capture the states’ policy prefer-
ences, but rather the policy-relevant content of their rheto-
ric by characterizing the framing they deploy—mapping
these debates using relatively light assumptions.
Analysis of UNSC debates on Syrian
In the period of analysis, 38 UNSC meetings focused on the
Middle East. In addition to Syria, some also discussed other
topics, chiefly the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Thus, we
have selected only meetings in which at least 3/4 of the
speeches mentioned Syria and at most 1/4 of them Palestine.
Table 1 reports the 23 selected meetings, including their
main topic and, if applicable, voting outcome. We collected
the meeting records in their official English translations.1
We concatenated the speeches by meeting and state, pro-
ducing 380 documents. Presiding members were included
only when speaking in their capacity as state representa-
tives. Next, we excluded states who spoke at one meeting
only, yielding a corpus of 347 speeches by 37 states, includ-
ing 113 by P5 members.2 The corpus was cleaned of num-
bers, punctuation and separators, set to lowercase and
stemmed. Finally, the occurrences of the (stemmed) dic-
tionary words were counted.
To place the speeches on the rhetorical space, we have
developed a dictionary with four classes of words, each of
which include theme words associated with either end of
our two dimensions. We identify these words using the
outlined theory as well as the authors’ background knowl-
edge of the debates on R2P (Table 2). Accordingly, human
rights violations (HRVs) framing includes references to
subjects of violence (“tyranny”, “perpetrator”), different
words for their objects (“women”, “children”, “civil-
ians”), and descriptors associated with acts of one-sided
violence, such as “crime”, “repression”, “torture”, “atroc-
ities”, “massacre” or even “genocide”. HRVs framing also
contains calls to “humanity” and “moral” as a bulwark
against perceived human rights violations. On the oppo-
site end of the spectrum, non-HRVs framing tends to
avoid blame-casting. Conflicts are portrayed as a struggle
between two parties in which violence is mostly a byprod-
uct of armed encounters; various terms are used to describe
violence as two-sided and blameless. Theme words
include “crisis”, “struggle”, “war”, and “chaos”. Warring
actors are nameless “parties” whose “fighting” and
“clashes” generate “losses” and “casualties” that
“threat[en]” to undermine “stability” or “security”.
Moving to the second dimension, “intervention” fram-
ing involves portraying the government as failing its basic
task to protect its population—requiring immediate out-
side action ranging from humanitarian aid to military
interference. The theme words associated with this frame
include terms for third party intervention (“action”,
“arrest”, “intervention”, “stop”) as well as modes of
4 Research and Politics
helping victimized groups (“assistance”, “aid”, “support”,
“deliver”). By contrast, “non-interventionist” framing
calls for consensual engagement with the government,
using tools of diplomacy. Mitigating violence is seen as a
“process” or “effort” in which the international commu-
nity engages the target government through “dialogue”,
“negotiations” and other “diplomatic” means in accord-
ance with the UN “charter”. The aim is to bring about
“solution” or “settlement”, preferably “inclusive” and
“comprehensive”, between the warring sides.
Having checked the dictionary against terms used in the
original debates over the R2P principle, we believe the dic-
tionary captures general features of R2P rhetoric that travel
across conflicts. It also includes theme words specific to the
Syrian civil war. This means that it can be adapted to other
conflicts through partial replacement of the words. Table 1
in Online Appendix 1 illustrates how the dictionary words
appeared in the context of the debates.
To measure relative emphasis in the speeches, we adapt
logistic scaling (Lowe, 2016; Lowe et al., 2011), under which
the document score is a logistic function of the document-
level counts of words attached to the positive and the nega-
tive side of the dimension. “Positive” and “negative” are
used in their mathematical sense and do not automatically
convey any normative or sentimental information. We
assigned the positive ends to human rights violations and
pro-intervention talk, respectively.
In building the statistical model, we take into account
three factors. First, there is a degree of continuity in the
Table 1. Included UNSC meetings.
No. Date Topic Outcome
6524 27 April 2011 Violence vs. the protesters
6572 30 June 2011 Extend UNDOF mandate S/RES/1994 adopted
6627 4 October 2011 Condemn Syrian government China & Russia veto draft resolution
6710 31 January 2012 Arab League report on Syria
6711 4 February 2012 Siege of Homs China & Russia veto draft resolution
6734 12 March 2012 Arab Spring
6751 14 April 2012 Annan’s 6-point proposal S/RES/2042 adopted
6756 21 April 2012 UN Syria supervision mission S/RES/2043 adopted
6810 19 July 2012 Economic sanctions vs. Syria China & Russia veto draft resolution
6826 30 August 2012 Syrian refugees
7038 27 September 2013 Destruction of Syrian chemical weapons S/RES/2118 adopted
7096 20 January 2014 Geneva talks
7116 22 February 2014 Humanitarian situation S/RES/2139 adopted
7180 22 May 2014 ICC mandate over Syria crimes China & Russia veto draft resolution
7216 14 July 2014 Humanitarian aid/ISIS S/RES/2165 adopted
7394 26 February 2015 Syria humanitarian situation/ISIS
7401 6 March 2015 Report on Syria chemical weapons S/RES/2209 adopted
7419 27 March 2015 ISIS
7433 24 April 2015 Humanitarian aid for Yarmouk, Aleppo & Homs
7501 7 August 2015 Chemical weapons responsibility S/RES/2235 adopted
7560 16 November 2015 Syrian refugees/ISIS
7588 18 December 2015 Geneva talks/ISIS
7595 22 December 2015 Humanitarian aid/ISIS S/RES/2258 adopted
Table 2. The dictionary.
No HRVs conflict, violence, tension, struggle, war, stability, destabilize, security, crisis, escalate, incite,
threat, chaos, cycle, fighting, casualties, losses, parties, clash, dispute
HRVs repression, humanity, crime, moral, torture, persecution, abuse, oppress, repress, life, incite,
tyranny, terrorism, children, women, perpetrator, victims, accountable, massacre, crackdown,
targeting, indiscriminate, brutal, barrel, genocide, cleansing, school, hospital, kill
Non-intervention process, charter, implementation, dialogue, constructive, consensus, diplomatic, reconciliation,
settlement, comprehensive, inclusive, mediation, effort, negotiation, proposal, solution
Pro-intervention urgent, action, assistance, support, aid, sanctions, arrest, stop, intervention, end, deliver
Medzihorsky et al. 5
framing used by a state, and its rhetorical position at a meet-
ing depends on its position at the previous meeting where its
representative spoke. Second, word usage is affected by
meeting themes related to current events. The fact that some
word frequencies vary across meetings reflects not only the
change in states’ positions, but also meeting topics. Third,
the observations contain some stochastic noise. In short, the
observed word counts are a function of random noise, bias
and rhetorical positions dependent on previous positions.
To account for these factors, we adopt a Bayesian
dynamic model related to models used to extract ideal
points of US Supreme Court judges (Martin and Quinn,
2002), party policy positions (König et al., 2013) and state
preferences in the UN General Assembly (Bailey et al.,
2017). Specifically, we model the count of “positive” words
W+ in the speech of ith state at
it it it
as a Binomial draw governed by rate pit with Nit trials
equal the the sum of “positive” and “negative” words in the
speech. The rate is a function of the speech position θit and
meeting coefficient (“effect”)
where γt is the coefficient of the
th meeting. The meeting
coefficients are random, drawn from a Normal distribution
with a mean of zero and a standard deviation σγ, with a
regularizing half-Normal hyper-prior
Finally, the state’s positions are modeled as a random walk
with the first position having a unit Normal prior and sub-
sequent positions as drawn from Cauchy distributions with
state-specific standard deviations with regularizing half-
it it xiti
(,), 2, <
is the closest previous meeting at which the i
th state spoke, and oit is the square root of the distance in
days between these two meetings. The standard deviation
σi captures the variability of ith state’s positions in time.
The Cauchy distribution is used for the “steps” instead of
the Normal as its thicker tails are more permissive of occa-
sional relatively large steps, such as policy changes stem-
ming from government change.
The model was fit separately for the two dimensions
using the no U-turns sampler (Hoffman and Gelman, 2014)
as implemented in the stan modeling language available in
the rstan package (Carpenter et al., 2016; Stan Development
Team, 2016a,b) for the R language (R Core Team, 2016).
Each model was fit running eight separate chains, each for
2,000,000 warm-up and 2,000,000 sampling iterations. To
ensure low chain auto-correlation, each 8000th sampling
iteration was saved, yielding 250 draws per chain and thus
2000 overall. Convergence was assessed using the Gelman-
diagnostic (Gelman and Rubin, 1992).
The average positions of the 37 analyzed states, shown in
Figure 1, are positively correlated, with Pearson
(two-sided 95% interval of [0.16,0.57]). At 17 of the 23
meetings the correlation was clear (
0.5 0.25 ), and at
the remaining six mostly positive (Figure A3 in the Online
Appendix). The HRVs-intervention corner is occupied by
the P3, plus Israel, Germany, Luxembourg, Turkey and
Australia. China and Russia occupy the opposite, no-HRVs/
no-intervention corner. Notably, its occupants include
Brazil, India and South Africa, and several African, South
American and Asian states. In support of our expectation
that R2P norm is regulating civil conflict rhetoric, most
states are located either on the main diagonal that runs from
P3 to Russia and China, or below it. In other words, those
who favor intervention cast the conflict in terms of human
rights violations, but not all those who acknowledge human
rights violations, join them in advocating intervention.
It should be acknowledged that most states are located
between the two clusters. They include countries geograph-
ically remote from Syria (e.g. Bosnia-Herzegovina,
Colombia, Guatemala, Rwanda, South Korea) or tradition-
ally taking middle ground at UN and other fora (e.g.
Argentina, Portugal, Spain). Perhaps less intuitive is the
presence of Lebanon and Syria. One might expect the
Syrian regime to frame the conflict in terms of “no human
rights violations” and “non-intervention”, in line with their
preference to avoid military intervention. However, Syria
has largely avoided talking about the civil war, and focused
instead on the behavior of regional actors, including accu-
sations against Israel, Gulf states and even Turkey for their
actions against the regime. On the other hand, Lebanon is in
a precarious situation because it suffers from conflict spill-
over, and a strong domestic actor, Hezbollah, participates in
the conflict. Its representatives have devoted much space to
addressing the domestic situation in Lebanon.
Typical mobility on both dimensions is shown by state
in Figure 2. In general, the 37 states maintained stable posi-
tions on the “solution” dimension, but less so on the
“problem” one. There, remarkably, China and France were
among the most mobile. This is better seen in Figure 3,
which shows the trajectories of the P5.3 China originally
6 Research and Politics
Figure 1. Average state positions in the debates. Medians; P5 members with 50% and 95% ellipses. Intervals for all 37 states shown
in Figure A2.
0.00 0.05 0.10 0.15 0.20 0.25
Human Rights Violations
0.00 0.05 0.10 0.15 0.20 0.25
Figure 2. Typical daily steps on the two rhetorical dimensions. Medians with 50% and 95% intervals.
Medzihorsky et al. 7
Figure 3. P5 positions on the two rhetorical dimensions. Medians with 50% intervals. 95% intervals shown in Figures A4 and A5.
framed the conflict as a complex struggle (no human rights
violations). However, as ISIS grew in strength, China began
to utilize more “violations talk”, thus converging somewhat
with the P3. Russia converged with the P3 in the same way,
but from a much smaller distance. Notably, Russia moved
toward more HRV talk (where the perpetrators are ISIS and
Syrian rebels rather than the regime) as well as more inter-
vention talk, and both shifts came prior to the Russian 2015
intervention. Nonetheless, despite the P5 converging on
the problem identification, the states remain divided on
the solution, which maps onto the P5 divide over the third
pillar of the R2P doctrine. The meeting coefficients, dis-
played in Figure 4, show that, in addition to the changes in
framing adopted by the participants after 2014, the preva-
lence of words associated with human rights violations and
intervention increased relative to words associated with the
other ends of the two-dimensions.
This paper introduced a model of civil conflict manage-
ment rhetoric and applied it to UNSC debates over
8 Research and Politics
international responses to the Syrian civil war. Building on
framing theory, the model is intended to show the ways in
which the emerging R2P norm regulates civil conflict man-
agement rhetoric on two dimensions—problem definition
and solution identification. Problems vary from conflicts
involving HRVs, typically war crimes, and conflicts that
are complex and largely blameless. Solutions range from
coercive intervention to more cooperative engagement.
We use quantitative text analysis to place the debating
UNSC Member States on both dimensions. In line with our
expectations of the regulatory effects of the R2P norm,
most states fall on the diagonal. While the three Western
permanent members have been more inclined to frame the
conflict in terms of human rights violations and to call
for outside intervention, Russia and even more so China
framed it more as a complex struggle amenable to non-
interventionist solutions. Eventually, in parallel with the
ascent of ISIS, China and Russia moved closer to the P3 by
framing the conflict in terms of human rights violations,
but, except for minor movements by Russia, largely adhered
Figure 4. Meeting coefficients. Medians with 50% and 95% intervals.
Medzihorsky et al. 9
to non-interventionist framing. This is consistent with the
observation that P5’s disagreement, at least in international
fora, goes beyond the conflict in question, and extends to
the norms of global conflict management themselves. To
the extent that R2P regulates civil conflict management
rhetoric by states, it features most strongly in the speeches
of the P3 and a handful of allies. However, it is notable that
China and Russia and other states opposed to elements of
R2P still engaged in non-HRVs framing in the case of the
Syrian civil war as a means of promoting non-intervention.
This suggests the power of such norms in regulating “civil
conflict rhetoric,” even among the norm’s opponents.
The authors would like to thank Daniel Bochsler, Robert Jervis,
David Siroky, Vujo Ilic, Stefan Wolff, Jack Snyder, Bill Ayers,
two anonymous reviewers, and the editor for comments on the
manuscript of this paper.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.
Supported by US Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative
The supplementary files are available at http://journals.sagepub.
com/doi/suppl/10.1177/2053168017702982. The replication files
are available at http://dx.doi.org/10.7910/DVN/7WIRJ7.
2 At two of the meetings—16 November 2015 and 22
December 2015—the representative of the UK did not speak.
3 For brevity, the other 32 states are shown Figures A6 and A7
in the Online Appendix.
Carnegie Corporation of New York Grant
This publication was made possible (in part) by a grant from
Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and
views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
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