Libya and the Future of the Responsibility to Protect
8 December 2011
When UN historians look back at 2011, they may well remember it as the year of R2P—diplomatic parlance for the “Responsibility to Protect.” All states, the decade-old doctrine argues, are obligated to protect their citizens. Should they fail—whether out of inability or by design—the international community must step in. 2011 certainly wasn’t the first time civilians were endangered by their own government, but it was the first time that the world responded with such military heft, intervening with the sole justification of protecting civilians. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon put it, “What is happening in Libya, Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere is a historic precedent, a watershed in the emerging doctrine of the responsibility to protect.”
The largest and highest profile intervention came in Libya. In February of this year, popular protests broke out against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi—who reacted with a brutal crackdown on demonstrators. In a response to continued attacks on civilians, including air strikes, the UN Security Council voted to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Responsibility for imposing the no-fly zone was given to NATO with logistical support from some Arab states. Immediately after the resolution passed, French jets began bombing. Assistance from Britain and the United States soon followed.
Almost as soon as the intervention in Libya began, analysts wondered out loud whether R2P would become the new status quo. The UN Security Council resolution mandating the operation won broad support, including a nod from the Arab League, to move forward. Even traditional opponents of intervention, such as Russia and China, chose to let the resolution go through. But since the resolution eventually, but not intentionally, led to the ousting of the detested leader, the international community may see a diplomatic freeze for the new doctrine. Many countries that had supported the limited resolution felt burned by its broader than intended outcome.
To understand the context of R2P in the Libya intervention, it’s worth a look back in history at how the doctrine first emerged. After 20th Century genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo rocked the global system, global leaders began to recognize the inadequacies of existing protections for civilians; they sought to establish a means of preventing and halting some of the worst human rights violations from ever happening again. The Responsibility to Protect consequently emerged from a report written by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), a Canadian government-led initiative established in 2000.
For the first time, R2P argued that sovereignty was as much a responsibility as a right for all global states. Back when the UN was created toward the end of the Second World War, the organization’s founders envisioned a system that would reduce the likelihood of conflict between states. One of the central tenets of the UN Charter was then the absolute power of the state within its own territory and was a principle reason that many nations eventually ratified the agreement. (…)
The first qualification on that sovereignty came in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which gave more rights and protections to individuals than the initial UN Charter. The Declaration has been seen by many as the true starting point for the human rights movement. By clearly defining universal rights, the Declaration gave clear goals for future advocates to fight for.
The Responsibility to Protect was the next logical evolution. As the world struggles on to prevent and respond to mass atrocities, the doctrine offered a mechanism to enforce the rights enshrined in the Human Rights Declaration. R2P, says Century Foundation Fellow Jeffrey Laurenti, provides an "accepted pathway to respond in circumstances where the Genocide Convention had demanded a response." The pathway dictates that states themselves should first work to prevent these crimes, that other states should assist if the state in question cannot protect its people, and lastly, that international actors should intervene to halt the acts as a last resort. (…)
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