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The Responsibility to Protect: Libya and beyond
Sheri P Rosenberg
Gulf Times
4 April 2011
Professor Sheri P Rosenberg is a UNAOC Global Expert and the director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Programme atCardozoLawSchool. Global Experts ( is a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations.

(…) Measures to address Gaddafi’s mass killing of civilians began with economic sanctions and travel bans - only when these measures failed to stop Gaddafi’s “no mercy” policy did the exceptional last resort of Security Council military action become a reality.  The wisdom of using these measures in Libya remains open to debate from those acting in good faith.  But, it is unquestionably positive that the world powers have reacted to protect innocent lives, as the reality and threat of massacres in Libyawas apparent to all. 

The near universal discussion of the RtoP doctrine in the context of Libya has, however, had the unfortunate consequence of associating the concept solely with military intervention — intervention that is likely to be exercised rarely and only by Western nations against states outside the sphere of influence of a major world power. 

To associate RtoP exclusively with military intervention is a grave mistake that will undermine the power and reach of this moral principle, and go some way to allow both the illegitimate and legitimate fears from many states of foreign invasion to come to the surface ever more strongly. 
Casting aside debates over the prudence of military intervention in Libya, the RtoP doctrine makes clear that successfully protecting populations from mass atrocities requires a continuum of actions by states: The continuum includes preventing mass atrocity, to reacting to the threat or occurrence of mass atrocity, and, if military action is necessary, to rebuilding – encompassing “a genuine commitment to helping to build a durable peace…”    

Viewing RtoP through the narrow lens of Libya obscures its primary commitment to “militaryless” prevention of mass atrocities.  As with any successful act of prevention, success in averting civilian deaths leads to a lack of media coverage and further associates RtoP exclusively with military intervention. 

We can never know the exact role played by words or actions taken in the name of RtoP, but fears over potential atrocities in South Sudan this year were actively averted by a variety of international and national actions. 

The prevention of a return to serious violence in Guinea in 2010, following the massacres of 2009, was also a successful invocation of RtoP without military interventions, as was Kenya after the 2008 elections where swift international diplomacy averted mass atrocity.  

These are instances where the RtoP doctrine is most effective, where states act to prevent mass atrocity without ever needing to get to the last resort of military action - which can only be fraught with moral, legal and political conundrums.

The nature of the news cycle and our appetite for major conflict may explain the greater attention given to violence over its prevention. The success of the moral principles embodied in the universal pledge to respect RtoP will depend on ensuring that images of peaceful prevention, and not just military action, are conjured up when we all focus on the responsibility to protect.

Resort to military intervention will and should remain the exception not the rule. We wholeheartedly welcome the growing recognition that there is a global interest — indeed responsibility — in preventing tyrants from committing mass atrocities. But let us not lose sight of the forest for the trees, and take the long view in Libya and beyond. — Global Experts/UNAOC 

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