The Responsibility to Protect: The Lessons of Libya
19 May 2011
(…) For those who back muscular humanitarian intervention, both the words and deeds of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi provided absolute moral clarity. “Come out of your homes, attack [the opposition] in their dens,” he told his supporters on February 22nd. He called the protesters “cockroaches” and “rats” who did not deserve to live: language chillingly reminiscent of the broadcasts of Radio Mille Collines, which spurred on the perpetrators of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994.
As he spoke, his forces had set their sights on Benghazi, their adversaries’ stronghold. According to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, government forces had already killed 233 people in the preceding week. A bloodbath beckoned, in a city of 700,000 people. The United Nations Security Council invoked a fateful formula, urging the regime to meet its “responsibility to protect” its people. On March 17th the council, “expressing its determination to ensure the protection of civilians”, ordered air strikes.
That set the stage for the first full-blown test of a principle that the UN adopted in 2005 and has been refining since. The doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) holds that when a sovereign state fails to prevent atrocities, foreign governments may intervene to stop them. Human-rights advocates say it saves lives. Sceptics see it as too easily misused to be useful: a cover for imperialism, or even an incentive to kill (because even if a massacre is not looming, an unscrupulous warlord might be tempted to engineer one against his own people to spur outside support). (…)
(…) At first it looked likely that the doctrine would either triumph or die in Libya. But two months and thousands of air strikes later, war’s messy reality has merely hardened views on both sides. On one hand, the decision to go to war was made in good faith at a time when the risk of massacres seemed real. As Mats Berdal, a professor at King’s College London, points out, the world’s leading powers had good reason to think they were “avoiding a Srebrenica”—the massacre of Bosnians which UN forces failed to avert in July 1995.
But as the war drags on and NATO strikes more widely, sceptics also feel their case has been bolstered. “For those of us who feared that R2P was just a warrant for war, our fears have been vindicated,” says David Rieff, an advocate-turned-critic. (…)
(…) The immediate goal of protecting Benghazi from massacre was achieved within days. Having destroyed Libya’s air defences, Western bombers and missiles pummelled the advancing troops into a speedy retreat.
Harder decisions followed. Libya’s army continued to shell other rebel-held cities, and its snipers were plainly targeting civilians. Protecting all Libyans, not just those in the east, would require the end of Colonel Qaddafi’s rule—an outcome that both Western and Arab governments had already called for.
NATO stepped up its military campaign, bombing retreating columns as well as advancing ones, and attacking command-and-control centres frequented by Colonel Qaddafi and his family. On April 30th an air strike killed one of his sons. The line between curbing atrocities and an air war for regime change blurred—though a land operation is ruled out, for the moment. (…)
(…) Both sides of the debate will eagerly cite Libya the next time mass murder seems imminent. It shows that a modest dose of air power can save lives; but also that the rhetoric of civilian protection can be stretched to justify a creeping mission. Power politics decides which lives get saved, and which policy aims triumph.
Mr Rieff decries a “two-tiered system of interveners and intervened upon”, where the “old imperial powers” make the rules. But which powers exactly? The Libyan vote passed only because non-Western Russia and China withheld their Security Council vetoes: all but unimaginable until recently. Both countries are now getting cold feet, claiming misuse of the resolution’s elastic language. For different reasons Mr Evans bemoans excess zeal too: he wants to preserve the purity of R2P, and fears an interpretation that allows for “all-out aggressive war”. A lot rides on this war—and not just for the Libyans. (…)
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