Toppling of Libyan Dictator Legitimizes R2P Doctrine

The war in Libya broke new ground, lending support for the international community to take a strong stand against dictators who threaten their own people. Bennett Ramberg, formerly with the US State Department, analyzes recent wars and how intervention in Libya compares. After horrific massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the Canadian government took the lead in 2001, convening diplomats in drafting the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, or R2P, to authorize intervention within sovereign borders to prevent the large-scale loss of life. Though the UN Assembly had not finalized all R2P procedures, the international community was ready to act in March 2011, voting to intervene after Muammar Gaddafi threatened imminent assault on Benghazi. Libya had many specific features – including Gaddafi’s reputation, Arab League support and reticence of UN Security Council members to pose a veto – too many to make that war a general model. But the international community’s rapid coalescence has put tyrants, notably Syria’s, on notice. – YaleGlobal

Toppling of Libyan Dictator Legitimizes R2P Doctrine

International response in Libya and Responsibility to Protect doctrine puts dictators on notice
Bennett Ramberg
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

R2P victory: Libyans rejoice at their freedom from Gaddafi's rule

LOS ANGELES: “I am in a place you cannot reach,” Muammar Gaddafi taunted in a May 13 radio address to his NATO adversaries. On October 20, 2011, NATO aircraft turned the taunt on its head, intercepting the dictator’s fleeing convoy from his Sirte hideout and opening the door for local fighters to take final vengeance. So concluded NATO’s most successful military adventure outside Europe.

The achievement naturally raises hopes the alliance has uncovered a new de minimis military strategy to protect civilians from government-sponsored mayhem. The formula is not complicated: Cruise missiles, aircraft and electronic jamming first suppress air defenses of the offending regime. Air power then creates a cordon sanitaire around rebel enclaves to prevent slaughter by the dictator, buying time for rebels to constitute themselves into a fighting force and form an interim government. Subsequent attacks focus on command and control, hoping that a lucky strike will kill the dictator. Tactical air power and intelligence aid rebel advances on strategic targets. All this takes place without NATO ground troops.

So how does the strategy stack up against recent and more distant modern wars – Kuwait 1991, Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003 and World War II? True, several involved large clashing armies in international conflict, but the comparison provides a point of departure to demonstrate the Libya model to combat governments turning on their people and how it supports Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, an emerging international doctrine to defend against future Libyas.

US and NATO intervention into Afghanistan and Kosovo demonstrate the Libya model does not entirely break new ground. In Afghanistan, Washington initiated an air campaign without US troops or supportive indigenous forces in the fight. Following the initial bombardment, it inserted military spotters to direct aircraft to crack the Taliban’s hold on the country. In Libya, unconfirmed reports suggest NATO also inserted spotters. The air strikes opened the door for local allied fighters – the Northern Alliance – to expel the Taliban from much of the country.

In Kosovo, NATO’s air power alone won the war. It took thousands of combat missions to prevail in 11 weeks. The alliance achieved success less by defeating Serbian forces in Kosovo and more by destroying much of Serbia’s industrial, military and civil infrastructure. In World War II Europe, such pain failed to break either Britain or Germany. But in Kosovo, NATO’s declared objective to get “the Serbs out, peacekeepers in and refugees back” did not aim to eliminate the Milosevic government. Rather it induced the regime to conclude sacrificing the province more than made up for staying in power.

Iraq 2003 marked a more expansive strategy and objective, a blitzkrieg on steroids combining air-delivered shock and awe with a mechanized armor assault to bring down the Baathist government. A mere three weeks finished the Iraqi army, only to open the can of sectarian and ethnic divisions that would commence a new, far more difficult conflict. Would Washington have been better off had it applied the Libya model? The premise is not academic musing. Before and during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States encouraged Iraqis, in President George H.W. Bush’s words, “to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Within days after Kuwait’s liberation, revolts that included military units took place in the Shia south and Kurdish north. However, unlike Libya, Washington sat on its hands, providing no air umbrella or enforcement of a cordon sanitaire. Saddam’s retribution cost the lives of tens of thousands.

Does Libya mark a game changer? Does it legitimize R2P? The effort to convince the international community to join together to protect citizens from their own government or non-state groups that attempt mayhem on a grand scale gained traction after Rwanda’s genocide and mass killings in Srebrenica. The Canadian government took the lead convening the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001. The panel of former diplomats and international public servants authored “Responsibility to Protect,” a report promoting intervention within sovereign borders when “large scale loss of life” looms as a product of deliberate state action, neglect, failed state situation or large-scale ethnic cleansing. The proposal proved to be an audacious challenge to the UN Charter tenant that forbids intervention “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”

In 2005 the UN World Summit – one of the largest gatherings of global leaders in history – gave R2P a major boost endorsing “timely and decisive” collective action “through appropriate and necessary means” when domestic crimes against humanity threatened. The endorsement marked not policy but a call for the General Assembly “to continue consideration.”

Following the Security Council’s 2006 affirmation of R2P as a guiding principal, the General Assembly took up the matter in a 2009 brainstorming session; 92 members presented views. While participants coalesced around R2P to delimit itself to war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide, the breadth of disputed implementation measures – arguments for Security Council reform and restraint in the use of the veto, differences over accepted triggers to initiate international military intervention, questions about constituting a rapid response force among many other matters – demonstrated the Assembly had much to resolve before it could generate policy. And so the matter remained for further consideration.

Then came Libya. With Gaddafi determined to quash the growing revolt on March 17, 2011 the Security Council acted: “Condemning the gross and systematic violation of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions...” and “expressing its determination to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian populated areas,” the body endorsed “all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.”

Despite the seven months it took NATO and the allies to prevail, President Barack Obama called the Libya intervention a “recipe for success.” And, indeed, the war demonstrated how a light international military footprint can empower populations to effectively resist tyrannical regimes.

Is Libya a model? Think Syria, Bahrain and possibly Yemen and the failure of the international community to respond, and one would think not. Indeed there remains much in the Libya war that made international involvement uniquely possible – a particularly odious dictator, his threat to use heavy weapons against his people, popular anger against the regime swelled by the Arab Spring, the willingness of the population to take up arms, the Arab League’s support for international action, intense international media coverage, NATO’s ability to destroy Gaddafi’s armor and command-and-control, and unwillingness of any permanent member of the Security Council to veto the intervention resolution. In short, Libya has too many specific conditions to serve as a general model.

But it would be an overstatement to suggest that Libya does not have broader implications. The intervention legitimized Responsibility to Protect. It put tyrants on notice – “if you murder your population you assume the risk the international community will throw you out.”

Notwithstanding the disunity of the Security Council on Syria, the action of the Arab League in suspending the country is a step in the right direction against a regime that has trained its tanks on citizens. No doubt the principle requires reinforcement through repeated practice, but the Libya war broke new ground, something no country violating human rights on a grand scale can dismiss cavalierly.


Bennett Ramberg, PhD, JD, served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the US Department of State during the George H.W. Bush administration. He can be reached at

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