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The sticky question of Libya's oil

ABC News
18 March 2011

Daniel Franks and Volker Boege

Dr Daniel Franks and Dr Volker Boege are currently researching the relationship between extractive resources, conflict and governance, and the implications for advancing the Responsibility to protect in the Asia Pacific region. The research is funded by the Australian Responsibility to protect Fund, Commonwealth Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and administered by the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to protect. Follow Dr Franks on Twitter @resourceafflict.

Responding to mass atrocity crimes in resource endowed regions raises difficult questions about natural resource sovereignty.

As the Libyan regime has been dishing out a particularly despicable form of repression to quell a civilian uprising the United Nations Security Council has has now acted on the basis that the government of Libya has not met its ‘responsibility to protect’ its civilian  population from mass atrocity crimes.

This is the first occasion that the United Nations Security Council has invoked the doctrine of the 'responsibility to protect' in its response to an international crisis. The ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) is a norm that has emerged following the failure of the international community to effectively respond to the deplorable mass atrocities that occurred in conflicts such as Cambodia and Rwanda. The concept is juxtaposed against the doctrine of humanitarian intervention - the so-called 'right' to intervene - which is argued by many states to present an unjustifiable challenge to national sovereignty.

The responsibility to protect places the onus on states to protect their citizens from the most extreme of crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing) and obliges the international community to assist states to build their capacity to do so. Should both of these manifestly fail the international community has the responsibility to progressively intervene through a wide range of approaches from diplomacy and sanctions, to the march of peacekeeping boots.

But there are challenging issues that arise in resource endowed regions when the prospect of international intervention is raised. While the responsibility to protect citizens from mass atrocity crimes is one that sits with the Libyan state, the broader application of R2P imposes an additional as yet unrecognised responsibility on the UN Security Council and the international community more generally to ensure that whatever response is adopted, the natural resource endowment of Libya remains in the control of her citizens.

The example of Iraq provides a stark case of the legitimacy lost when the spoils of war are divided amongst those who have intervened. While the R2P norm is not encumbered with the indignity of being invoked in the Iraq case there is a justifiable reticence that many states have to the suspension of sovereignty even for the noble goal of ending mass atrocity crimes. (…)

(…) There are many cases (such as Sudan, Liberia, Bougainville and Sierra Leone) where extractive resources have generated and fuelled conflicts where mass atrocity crimes have featured. In each of these cases the natural resources dimension has had a role to play in the resolution of the conflict.

There is also the potential for extractive resources to create pressures on the strategic decision-making of those in a position to respond to mass atrocity crimes. Speaking following a meeting of the G8 on Tuesday Col Gaddafi is reported to have said: "We don't trust their ambassadors any more, they have conspired against us...We don't trust their firms. We are going to invest in Russia, India and China now. That's where our money is going to be invested. Oil contracts will now go to Russian, Chinese and Indian firms.(…)

(…) The case of Libya will be different. But the oil question is just too important to be omitted. If left unresolved it has the potential to erode the legitimacy of international strategies to curb the most extreme forms of mass violence. The ‘suspension’ of sovereignty in order to protect citizens from atrocities in Libya must not be accompanied by the violation of the resource sovereignty endowed in the people of that state. Should this be the case support for the responsibility to protect norm will be undermined, as local opinion--and indeed resistance-- may coalesce around the action as a form of resource appropriation rather than an effort to curtail atrocity crimes.

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