Responsibility to Protect: Where’s the Iceberg?

Open civil war in Libya created the vacuum that drew the United Nations in. It was the grim outlook for Benghazi, its militias, and its inhabitants which stirred much of the Arab, European, and probably global public. Whenever you heard a discussion about Libya in everyday life, it was mostly about what was officially referred to as the responsibility to protect, or R2P.

MasasitMati: Beeshou's Nightmares

MasasitMati: Beeshou’s Nightmares – click picture for video

Every time when military intervention is considered, many supporters of the option suggest that the situation is exceptional, and that it requires exceptional responses. But the frequency of such military interventions – in Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, in Sierra Leone and in East Timor in 2000, in Iraq in 2003, in Lebanon in 2006, in Georgia in 2008, and in Libya in 2011, just to name a few -, hardly suggests that military intervention can still be seen as an exception.

Now, military intervention in Syria appears to become more likely – depending on the sources you read, it may already be in progress -, and one in Iran may be somewhat further down the queue.

Responsibility to protect is a norm, not a law. Even if it were a law, different states with different interests could still disagree if the law applies,or if it doesn’t. When it’s a norm, decisions will depend either on ethics, or on interests, or on a combination of both. What counts in the decision-making process is which laws or rules may serve to make international “norm enforcement” legal.

In Libya’s case humanitarian considerations were only the tip of the iceberg – in global politics, anyway, not necessarily in the press. The need to help the vulnerable – the need to “do something”, as Aidan Hehir referred to this humanitarian urge  in his The responsibility to protect and international law chapter*) -, seemed to dominate everyday discussions.

What was the actual iceberg about? I don’t know, obviously, but the first step to understand it better should be to look at the document that made military intervention in Libya legal. UN Resolution 1973

[…] Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory […]

An occupation force isn’t the same thing as ground forces, as far as I can see. The mandate was maxed by the intervening forces, but they weren’t necessarily in breach of it.

Which reasons did the resolution give for what was, after all, an intervention in a sovereign country? Civilian casualties, gross and systematic violation of human rights, the need for unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance, the Arab League’s support for a no-fly zone to be established, concern for the safety of foreign nationals in Libya, and the plight of refugees.

The Council welcomed the response of neighbouring States, in particular Tunisia and Egypt – tens of thousands of Libyans had fled their country, either to the east or to the west. It wouldn’t have taken too many months until Europe had faced an influx of refugees, too – in fact, Muammar Gaddafi had previously been Europe’s cooperation partner in keeping refugees from all over Africa south of the Mediterranean, and his sons had been welcome guests in Europe.

The first thing to do when judging the need to “do something” is to cool down – or to try, anyway. The beautiful language UN resolutions are wrapped into might as well be put into much more common words. Resolution 1973 became possible because Gaddafi – to various degrees – had become a disturbing factor in the business of all the stakeholders – Arab countries’, China’s, European countries’, and Russia’s.

The need to cool down also applies when it comes to the suspicions against political motivations. Many of these suspicions are certainly called for, but similar to the way many proponents of intervention monger their “morally superior” positions, many of the objections, too, are applied like cluster bombs.

It is probably wrong to think that there was that one overriding motivation (“Libyan oil” would probably be cited the most, when searching angry blog posts). It should  be more accurate to think of goal hierarchies, rather than of single goals that would define the military mission. Among a bundle of goals, the desire to avoid growing flows of refugees was probably among the bigger ones, at least in Arabia and Europe.

But while the UNSC managed to integrate all the stakeholders’ positions in 2011, concerning Libya, interests seem to differ too widely this time, concerning Syria. Besides, even benign powers like Brazil and India distrust interventionism. Brazil seems to put its reservations forward constructively [update, Dec 17, 2020 – link removed for safety reasons]:

In November, Brazil pushed the debate further by circulating a concept paper to all UN members on a new concept: “responsibility while protecting.” While the Council had cited the “responsibility to protect” civilians from mass atrocities over Libya, the Brazilians argued that the Council should develop stronger guidelines for the use of force and procedures “to monitor and assess the manner in which resolution are interpreted and implemented.” Although the Brazilian paper never mentions Libya, the purpose of its recommendations is clear: to set out constraints that would prevent a repeat of NATO’s escalation of the campaign against Gaddafi, which so quickly slipped beyond the Council’s control.

Not that only America, the Arab League, Britain or France were to blame. Practically everything deemed necessary by the authorized member states had been made “legal” by the 1973 resolution – at least in the widest sense. That couldn’t have happened without the UN security council’s agreement.

But while more  or less humanitarian initiatives might fool stakeholders with legitimate interests once, you can’t fool them every time you want.



*) Critical Perspectives on the Responsibility to Protect, Interrogating theory and practice, ed. Philip Cunliffe, Oxon, New York, 2011, p. 85



» Sheikh Hassoun interview, Der Spiegel, Aug 11, 2011


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