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Outside the Law
Eric Posner
Foreign Policy
25 October 2011
The execution-style killing of Muammar al-Qaddafi by a mob of gunmen in the ruins of Sirte last week put an end to NATO's six-month military intervention in Libya. Unless the country descends into anarchy or an equally abhorrent dictator succeeds Qaddafi, the Libya intervention will be regarded as a victory for the West, for the United States, and for that reluctant but surprisingly fierce warrior, President Barack Obama. (…)
But if the Libya intervention turns out to be a political and moral victory, it also illustrates once again the motto, inter arma silent leges -- in times of war, the law falls mute. Both international and U.S. law took a drubbing alongside Qaddafi's ragtag army, casting further doubt upon the already tenuous notion that international military actions can be conducted on a legal basis. (…)
Some commentators claimed that the Libyan intervention was justified by the Responsibility to Protect (obnoxiously known as "R2P"), a principle formally endorsed by U.N. members in 2005. The Responsibility to Protect requires all countries to protect their own civilians, and may permit the international community to intervene if they do not. However, the Responsibility to Protect never achieved the status of international law because states were not willing to embody the principle in a binding treaty. As a principle or norm, it has been applied selectively, to say the least. (…)
But China and Russia appear to have used their bargaining power to secure some concessions. Resolution 1973 did not authorize a full-blown ground invasion, and in fact prohibited a "foreign occupation force." Instead, it established a no-fly zone, and authorized the use of military force to "protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack." This was not a remit to depose Qaddafi.
Far from adhering to these essentially defensive parameters, NATO took an active part in assisting the rebels' campaign to overthrow the government, with some countries even sending limited ground forces, and undertaking various efforts to assassinate Qaddafi in bombing attacks. (…)
Anothercasualty of the military intervention was human rights. To be sure, Qaddafi was a cruel dictator, and his overthrow was a victory for those who care about human rights. But human rights law does not endorse the principle that the ends justify the means -- even if the ends are humanitarian. (…)
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