Libya, Syria, and the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP)

Concerns over the use of force in Libya have embroiled RtoP in controversy because of its inclusion in Resolution 1973. This has had real implications in coordinating an international response to the crisis in Syria, and  may have consequences for the future of RtoP moving forward. 

Why the UN Security Council acted in Libya

The Security Council (UNSC) decision to mandate ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians in Libya came in response to the actions of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, his security forces, and his hired hands. By ruthlessly cracking down on protestors and issuing statements that were similar to those that preceded the Rwanda genocide, it became apparent that Muammar Gaddafi would do anything to crush the revolt and maintain power, even slaughter his own civilians.The initial decision under Resolution 1973 was a landmark for the norm, as it was the first time the UN Security Council had acted under the third pillar of the RtoP framework to mandate coercive measures to protect civilians at risk from imminent atrocities.

Civilian protection or regime change?

However, since the beginning of the enforcement of the no-fly zone, questions have been raised regarding NATO’s objectives in Libya, particularly with regards to regime change. As Andre Pratte states in a CIC roundtable discussion:“The NATO mission in Libya underlines the difficulties in translating R2P into action. The Security Council 1973 made very clear that the goal of the Libya mission is to protect civilians, not to affect regime change. Yet here we are bombing Libya with the explicit goal of bringing Gaddafi down.”

NATO’s run-around with regards to its objectives has had particularly negative implications for the norm, and has evoked some tough questions with regards to RtoP implementation. On top of this, the pursuit of regime change in Libya has actually played into the hands of RtoP critics, and may have negative consequences for the future of RtoP.

In perhaps the most scathing commentary to date, David Reiff states:

“R2P may not have been designed as the latest version of humanitarian intervention, but with the Libyan action, that is what it has become.”

Attention will be paid to Reiff’s critique as this post progresses, but his comments reflect the backlash towards RtoP since the Libya operation began.

Backlash towards use of force in Libya

Despite international condemnation of the Gaddafi regime, the controversial nature of the use of force to protect civilians has not eluded the UN-authorized, NATO-led operation.

Concerns over NATO’s reliance on air-power, particularly in a civilian protection mission, have been made clear.  That an errant NATO missile claimed the lives of innocent Libyans – civilians NATO is acting to protect – gave grounds to these concerns, and indeed took a toll on the credibility of the mission.

These concerns manifested themselves at the recent UN General Assembly informal interactive dialogue on RtoP, where a number of states – including Russia, China, and Brazil – made clear their concerns over the use of force in Libya, particularly with regards to NATO’s objectives and the way in which it has carried out the mission.

Real implications for present cases…

This has had very real implications with regards to Syria. As a recent article by Gus Taylor notes that the inaction on behalf of the Security Council can be linked to the Libya backlash:

“Russia and China would veto a resolution calling on the Syrian government to restrain itself. “This is very much a blow-back from the Libyan episode,” explained Gowan. “Russia and China — and also India — feel that the West pushed them into a corner over Libya…They fear that they accepted a precedent for Western interventionism that they now want to erase, and Syria has been the test case for that.”

Recent events on the ground have perhaps caused this line against Council action on Syria to soften, as the a Presidential Statement was issued on 3 August, which condemned the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities. While a first step, Presidential Statement’s from the Council lack the legally binding nature of Resolutions. There was also no mention of RtoP in the Presidential Statement, no doubt reflecting concerns over its inclusion in Resolution 1973.

Thus, while Libya may not “kill” RtoP, as David Bosco argues in his blog on Foreign Policy, it certainly carries weighty implications for the norm moving forward.

Real implications for future cases?

A look at the way the vote fell on Resolution 1973 highlights potential implications for the implementation for R2P in future cases. Passing with 10 votes, Resolution 1973 was absent the entirety of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) bloc. As Tim Dunne and Jess Gifkins note:

“Abstentions by China, Russia, Germany, India and Brazil raise a bigger question for forcible civilian protection; what future do such actions have in a world that is not being led by the United States and its western allies? … Does this response by the BRIC powers foreshadow an era of non-intervention will be upon us when we transition to a post-American world?”

David Bosco says ‘no’ to a supposed ‘era of non-intervention’. But, the precedent set by the Libya resolution may impact the support of the growing global powers to R2P implementation in future cases. This could easily pose a daunting obstacle on the road to consistent and effective RtoP implementation to protect civilians elsewhere, especially where the use of force is required to protect vulnerable populations.

Difference between normative aspirations, implementation can’t be blamed on R2P

In a time where the norm has come under fire, we must do well to remember what RtoP is and what it allows for. Nowhere in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document does it suggest that regime change is a viable justification for Security Council-mandated intervention, nor does it bestow a primacy or preference to military responses.

In fact, RtoP does quite the opposite, and in this regard David Reiff is wrong to merely equate RtoP as a “new form of humanitarian intervention”.

We must remember that RtoP has a “narrow but deep” guideline for acting in any given situation, and regime change is most certainly not one of them. By mandating ‘all necessary measures’ to protect Libyan civilians from atrocity, the Security Council acted in the spirit of the Responsibility to Protect. By rapidly responding to protect civilians in the wake of the UNSC resolution, NATO and its Gulf allies also acted in the spirit of RtoP.

Thus, the Libya case has revealed that there must be a distinction made between the normative aspirations of RtoP and the way in which it is implemented by any state or group of states acting within the mandate of a Security Council resolution.

The logic of laying blame on RtoP is misplaced, and has had real implications on the ground for Syrians. On top of this, it sets the international community back in the important work it has done with regards to RtoP and the protection of civilians from mass atrocity.

1 Comment

Filed under Libya, RtoP, Syria, UN

One response to “Libya, Syria, and the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP)

  1. Ayman Salama

    In light of the recent statement issued by the Higher Commissioner hours ago for Human Rights in Geneva , calling for the referral of Syrian President to the Chief Prosecutor of the I.C.C in the Hague

    I would like to legally revise and expound a bit on this important statement :

    1- The international community bears a responsibility to protect unarmed Syrian civilians under SC and GA different Resolutions that had been initiated in 2001 and till the last two resolutions 1970 and 1973 in Feb this year concerning the situation in Libya

    2- The only competent body that can refer the situation ( and not Bashar ) in Syria to the Chief Prosecutor of the I.C.C in the Hague is the SC UN under Rome Statute of the I.C.C.

    3- The referral of the situation in Syria should be adopted under Chapter 7 of UN Charter with no Veto from any permanent member of the SC UN

    4- It is indispensable to highlight the urgent measures that might be adopted to protect civilians in Syria in light of the previous experience of the UNPROFOR in Bosnia in 1995 when the UN Forces safeguarded and protected 6 cities there which were called save heavens .

    5 – There are other various measures to be adopted in this regard

    Best wishes

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