The World’s Responsibility to Protect Libyans

The Gaddafi family unleashes fierce firepower on citizens who could no longer endure a corrupt, brutal reign. The international community is obligated to act swiftly under the responsibility to protect principle, argues Ramesh Thakur, professor of political science and a member of the R2P commission. In 2005, world leaders reached unanimous agreement that the United Nations would honor the collective responsibility to protect citizens against crimes of atrocity by their government. R2P was devised for military abuses, such as those employed in Libya. So far, the West and the UN Security Council – including temporary members who seek a permanent council seat – evade responsibility. Thakur argues that “Both for its own credibility and for the sake of Libyans, the Security Council must determine the appropriate protective measures, authorize them and urge those with the capacity to implement them.” International leaders must move beyond verbal condemnation of atrocities and wield firm protective measures. – YaleGlobal

The World’s Responsibility to Protect Libyans

The international community ignores its blueprint for halting atrocities in Libya
Ramesh Thakur
Monday, March 14, 2011

WATERLOO: With Muammar Gaddafi’s bombers, tanks, artillery and naval vessels unleashing firepower on urban centers, the rebels appeal for international intervention to prevent a massacre. Libya is at a turning point, a moment when the much-talked-about responsibility to protect, or R2P principle, should trigger action led by the United Nations. But the organization is paralyzed by bickering members more concerned about their narrow national interests. The pussy-footing response of Security Council Members Brazil, India and South Africa – the rising global powers – has provided proof that they’re not ready for prime time as permanent members of the UN’s top body.

The weak-kneed response calls into question the United Nations’ value as protector of the world’s population. The organization exists to bring about a world where fear is changed to hope, want gives way to dignity, and apprehensions are turned into aspirations. In the words of the illustrious Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations was “not created in order to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell.” UN failures in Africa and the Balkans in the 1990s reflected many structural, political and operational deficiencies that accounted for its inability to save people from hell. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, scarred by the experiences of Rwanda and Srebrenica that happened on his watch as head of UN peacekeeping, championed the search for a new norm that would empower the world community to act to save at-risk populations.

A Canadian-sponsored international commission took up the challenge and formulated the innovative responsibility-to-protect principle in 2001. 

In 2005, world leaders unanimously agreed that where governments manifestly failed in their sovereign duty, the international community, acting through the United Nations, would take “timely and decisive” action to honor the collective responsibility to protect people against crimes of atrocity. This represents the idealized UN as the symbol of an imagined and constructed community of strangers. For 350 years from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to1998, sovereignty functioned as institutionalized indifference. In 1999, international interventions in Kosovo and East Timor broke that mold and were the backdrop to Annan’s search for a new norm.   R2P is the mobilizer of last resort of the world’s will to act to prevent and halt mass atrocities and mitigate the effects of sovereignty as organized hypocrisy, as Stanford University’s Stephen Krasner famously put it. It’s our normative instrument of choice to convert a shocked international conscience into collective action.

R2P meets the minimum requirement of the call to action of classical humanitarian intervention while protecting the bottom-line interests of developing countries, thereby assuaging their legitimate concerns. It navigates the treacherous international shoals between the Scylla of callous indifference to the plight of victims and the Charybdis of self-righteous interference in others’ internal affairs.

Libya today is the place and time to redeem or renege on R2P’s solemn pledge. The people’s uprising against Gaddafi is tailor-made for R2P. Many people have already been killed, and carnage is feared. After 42 years of autocratic rule, Gaddafi is using deadly violence to crush an open revolt against his dictatorship. He and his son Saif have vowed to fight to the last drop of their blood, deploying air, sea and land forces. Putting all options on the table as the riposte to planes, bombs and tanks seems a pusillanimous response.

The UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council, Ban Ki-moon and his special advisers on genocide prevention and R2P have called on Libya to respect its R2P, human rights and international humanitarian law obligations. The Security Council also imposed sanctions on Libya and referred Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court – a soft and deeply problematic option of kicking the ball out of play.

R2P is not solely about military intervention but, if it’s to have any meaning at all, must include that option as a last resort. Both for its own credibility and for the sake of Libyans, the Security Council must determine the appropriate protective measures, authorize them and urge those with the capacity to implement them.

Those who have supplied Gaddafi with his weaponry have a particular responsibility to protect civilians from being harmed by their use. But how? Premature, over-eager outside intervention will pollute the revolution made of, by and for Arabs. Muslims have cause to be deeply suspicious of Western military meddling.

Three sets of issues are involved: military capacity, legal authority and political legitimacy.

Boots on the ground may not be wanted, helpful or feasible. Instead, military operations would entail four sets of activities: surveillance and monitoring, stepped up to 24/7 operations from the previous 10 hours a day; humanitarian assistance; enforcement of the arms embargo; and enforcement of a no-fly zone.

Only the West has the military assets and operational capability for these tasks. But NATO would be ill-advised to take any military action on its own authority. Calls grow for a no-fly zone, especially from rebels under aerial attack. Military analysts are divided on the complexity and feasibility of the option: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says a no-fly zone requires destruction of the Libyan air force, others add anti-aircraft batteries, and still others warn of mission creep and the risk of being branded Western imperialists. 

Yet a no-fly zone was successfully declared and enforced over Iraq to protect the Kurds for 12 years until 2003. It did not lead to mission creep: The 2003 war was not a creeping progression from the no-fly zone, but a deliberate policy choice for independent reasons. The quality of Libya’s air force is suspect: “a known unknown.” A no-fly zone could tip the balance for Libyan air force officers’ motivations to bomb fellow citizens or defect, either to the rebels or the West.

The risks of mission creep and deepening quagmire leading to nation-building would arise only if ownership of the uprising is appropriated from the Libyans by the West, as would happen with ground troops. The chances of this are reduced with legal authorization from the UN Security Council that’s restricted to the four military tasks listed above. The usual suspects have been reluctant to support such a resolution. Their opposition could be overcome if it becomes clear that the Arab, Islamic and African nations, as well as the mass of defecting Libyan diplomats, support prompt and effective action to protect Libyan civilians, oust Gaddafi and promote democratic reforms.

If the Security Council dishonors the world’s collective responsibility to protect, limited and legitimate action by NATO is still possible under clear mandate from the African Union and Arab League, backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Absent that, NATO guns should stay silent.

In his speech to India’s houses of parliament on November 8, President Barack Obama endorsed India’s quest for permanent membership of the Security Council, but reminded listeners that global power carries responsibility for solving global problems. For the first time ever, the Security Council includes the powerful southern heavyweights of Brazil, India and South Africa, all weak and poor in previous decades and now vibrant, even ebullient democracies. They should have taken the lead to turn R2P from principle to actionable norm, providing the legal authority to utilize Western military capability on behalf of innocent victims.

Instead they’re among the biggest foot-draggers. Having failed the test of acting as stewards of world order that combines values and power, they have proven their critics right. They are not yet ready to join the top table as permanent members.


Ramesh Thakur, professor of political science, University of Waterloo, was UN Assistant Secretary-General, an R2P commissioner and a principal author of its report. His most recent book is “The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics” (2011).
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