Scholars and Experts Analyze RtoP in the Wake of Rebel Gains in Libya

The recent success of the Libyan rebels is bringing the end of Gaddafi’s reign in Libya within sight. The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) was referenced extensively as a framework for reaction, and as discussions continue on the UN-mandated operation to protect civilians, attention is now turning to the upcoming challenges in transitioning to the post-Gaddafi era in Libya.


The narrative surrounding RtoP and the Libya case is both complex and nuanced. Those that tout Libya as an RtoP test-case, or even a success story, see a strong need for assistance from the international community in the transition period. Others remain uncertain as to Libya’s long-term legacy for RtoP, and see challenges for the norm moving forward, particularly regarding instances where military action may be required. Some look at the case of Syria and highlight RtoP’s politicization and inconsistent application, suggesting that Libya may have tarnished the norm itself. It’s a consuming discussion, and one that should be explored further.

Analysts Highlight Potential Positives

Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian Foreign Minister, sees the UN-mandated, NATO-led operation in Libya to protect civilians as a positive step in transforming RtoP from theory to practice, particularly in light of the recent rebel gains that have brought Gaddafi’s 42-year reign in Libya closer to its end:

Moammar Gadhafi and his regime have been overturned by a combination of powerful, popular democratic forces within Libya and a willingness by certain members of the international community to respond to the UN call for intervention to protect the brave civilians on the ground…This heralds a further significant step in bolstering the emerging norm of how international justice trumps sovereignty…We are seriously engaged in a resetting of the international order toward a more humane, just world. It calls for immediate and appropriate action as called for in R2P.

In her new blog for The Atlantic, Notes from the Foreign Policy Frontier, Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning for the State Department and current professor at Princeton, argues that the Libya precedent may actually evoke a shift in discourse away from “intervention”, and instead at what should happen when the state fails in its basic responsibility to prevent mass atrocities. Slaughter writes:

[…] I’d like to explore…whether it makes sense to keep talking about intervention at all. […] if an international coalition uses force on the authorization of the Security Council, because the Council has determined that a government has overwhelmingly failed in its responsibility to protect its own people, and because the vast majority of those people with access to free means of expression are asking for force to be used, doesn’t it make more sense to say that the citizens of many nations, as represented by their governments, are responding to a call for help from the citizens of a nation unable to compel their government to perform its most basic function?

Writing in a recent academic roundtable in Ethics and International Affairs, Thomas Weiss, former ICISS member and current Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at CUNY, also presents the Libyan situation in a positive light in moving towards a world without mass atrocities:

The international action against Libya was not about bombing for democracy, sending messages to Iran, implementing regime change, keeping oil prices low, or pursuing narrow interests. These may result from such action, but the dominant motivation for using military force was to protect civilians…Libya suggests that we can say no more Holocausts, Cambodias, and Rwandas—and occasionally mean it.

From the above, we can see that the quick move on Tripoli by rebel forces has bolstered those who supported the need to react to protect populations in Libya, highlighting the potential for RtoP as a framework for reaction with a variety of tools to prevent and halt genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. However, as seen throughout the crisis in Libya, the discussion certainly doesn’t end there.

Challenges Remain, Uncertainties Linger After Libya

Hard Work Ahead in Libya

Axworthy himself writes that the hard work for the international community is just beginning in Libya:

While these developments in Libya can be seen as decisive alterations to the international framework of law and accountability, it’s no time to be complacent. Indeed the application of R2P has just begun. Essential to the principle is the third crucial element of assisting in efforts to rebuild Libya on democratic, stable foundations – a difficult exercise.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, have raised concerns over the need to ensure that revenge killings do not occur, and that vulnerable populations remain protected. The International Crisis Group has also mapped the steps necessary for moving into a peaceful post-Gaddafi era in Libya, which include establishing security, law and order, transitional justice and reconciliation, and beginning the political transition.

Challenges Regarding the Use of Force

Contributing to the same roundtable as Weiss above, Alex Bellamy, a professor at the University of Queensland,  also notes that RtoP’s important role in shaping the world’s response to actual and threatened atrocities in Libya may reflect, “a change in the Council’s attitude toward the use of force for human protection purposes”. But, Bellamy sees the decision to use coercive force more as the exception than the rule, raising concerns over its implementation in Libya:

Clearly necessary given the context, there is no hiding the fact that the form of intervention in Libya was highly imperfect, that it delivered indirect and patchy protection at best, and that it placed the region’s long-term stability in the hands of fractious rebels about whom little is known. Such late-in-the-day decisions about military intervention to prevent mass atrocities will always be taken in a context of deep uncertainty about their effects and will be driven by the specific political context.

Bellamy urges that the future implementation of RtoP be focused on prevention, so as to reduce the number of cases that require the urgent and coercive decision-making that may prove divisive, as in Libya.

Jennifer Welsh, a professor at Oxford University, also remains uncertain as to what Libya’s legacy will mean for the “fortune and trajectory” of RtoP. While Welsh agrees with Weiss in that the main challenge for the norm is now how to act to prevent mass atrocity, not whether to act, she states:

[…] it would be rash to conclude that the Libyan case ends the debate over RtoP’s status, meaning, and strength in contemporary international society….the very fact that Resolution 1973 mentions only “the responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libya population” and not the responsibility of the international community suggests the latter notion was still contested by some members of the Security Council as an appropriate rational for military action.

Furthermore, Welsh argues that by “elaborating the sharp end” of an RtoP response – the use of force – the Libya operation may have made the norm more susceptible to controversy from key Council members.

Concerns Over Application in Libya, Deadlock Over Syria

Writing in the LA Times, UN Director for Human Rights Watch Philippe Bolopion, echoes Welsh’s concerns and says that the Libya case has in fact strengthened the case for those who question RtoP and highlight its inconsistent application. He writes:

Countries that waged war in Libya under the banner of the responsibility to protect have a duty to explain themselves and accept a sober and critical look at their actions. They should not be seen as brandishing responsibility-to-protect when it’s politically expedient and ignoring it when it’s not. They should address the complaints of countries that genuinely supported action to protect civilians but felt alienated by the way military operations were conducted. It’s the only way to ensure that Libya’s legacy brings us closer to a world that does not tolerate mass atrocities ever again.

Bolopion also writes that Libya has played a contributing factor in the deadlock in the Security Council over Syria:

There are many reasons for this disturbing failure to act [in Syria]: the opposition of veto-wielding Russia and China, the silence of the Arab League, the presence in the Security Council of Lebanon… But a crucial factor against action has been that key votes in the council — India, South Africa and Brazil — are missing. Behind closed doors, their diplomats have explained that they are reluctant to go down the Libya road again…The Syrian people are paying the price for what some countries see as NATO’s overreaching in Libya.

Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute for International Policy tows a similar line as Bolopion, noting the similarities between the threatened atrocities in Benghazi, Libya and the actual atrocities in Hama, Syria, and argues that the differences in the international response mean RtoP is “largely unworkable”:

The problem with Responsibility to Protect as a concept is that, while the lives of all human beings are worth saving, the willingness of states to intervene and the ability of military force to save them differs significantly depending on the circumstances…It is obvious that R2P cannot be universally applied because of the dictates of realpolitik. The problem with the real-world invocation of R2P is that those quickest to justify military action based on the principle never explain why they don’t call for it in apparently similar circumstances. As a consequence, people are likely to lose faith (and even interest) in the concept.

Moving Forward : Analyze best practices and lessons learned

It’s clear from the above that despite the success of the rebels in Libya, challenges remain, uncertainties linger, and key questions need answering, particularly regarding the international response to the situation in Syria to date (stay tuned to our blog for more on Syria). But, regarding RtoP in Libya, Welsh concludes her piece mentioned above by stating:

If the Libya case can contribute to further research and policy debate…then it truly will have advanced the international community’s understanding and implementation of the responsibility to protect.

Looking at the broader picture, Rachel Gerber of the Stanley Foundation notes that the international community learns by doing:

As RtoP is applied, mistakes will be made, as must adjustments…Global leaders must take care that this inevitable process of trial and error does not automatically become trial by fire for the broader commitments made in adopting the Responsibility to Protect. A recent debate on the Responsibility to Protect within the UN General Assembly suggests that governments understand this problem, and remain committed to preserving R2P, even when its application in cases like Libya raises more questions than it provides answers.

These last two quotes provide this post with a fitting conclusion: The need to learn lessons and make adjustments. It is important that we reflect not only the successes in each case, but the challenges for the international community as well. This will likely not be an easy process. But, as we are seeing in other places where atrocities are occurring, such as Syria or Sudan, lives will depend on it.

We want to turn this discussion over to you now. What do you think of some of the commentary above? Has Libya been an RtoP success story? Or do concerns regarding the Libya operation and RtoP remain? If so, what are they? Comment below and get the RtoP conversation started.


Filed under Libya, RtoP, Syria, UN

3 responses to “Scholars and Experts Analyze RtoP in the Wake of Rebel Gains in Libya

  1. Libya’s case: R2P, civilian’s deaths and the UN mandate.

    Kudos!! R2P accomplished successfully raising the initial death toll from 350 deaths to over 50,000 (close to 1% of the total population…) Amazing! Protection of lives was used for an obvious regime change operation. Naturally as now all this is a fait accompli everybody celebrates heading for oil and reconstruction contracts. Lets build a graveyard outside the UN to burry the victimes of Aghanistan, Yougoslavia, Iraq and Libya. Maybe then the white collars will learn to appreciate human lives more…

    On top of this the UN faced depreciation again:

    * Arms embargo was violated addmitetly by France and Qatar.

    * No boots on the ground was violated addmitetly by special forces of the UK and CIA operatives.

    * No flying zone was used as pretext for regime change initiating the bombing of civilians, schools, hospitals, TV station etc. NATO addmited civilian’s casualties. According to the Libyan Health Ministry the casualties’ tall had reached over 3,000 dead and wounded civilians before the “final” battle in Tripoli.

    * Freezing assets was broken by releasing money to the NTC during the operation.

    Protection of lives demands first of all cease of fire and then negotiations. Neather was employed as R2P implementation turned once again to be an amplification of the conflict.

    The only justification is the victory of the rebels. But this is not existed into the UN mandate lines anyway leading to atrocities by both sides which is a common practice in every civil war.

    P.S. The whole Unified Protector Operation was primary ment to impose a no – flying zone as Gaddafi’s war planes allegedly had bombed civilians. This remains largely unprooved and in the present bill of indictment issued by the ICC there is no mention on the incident.
    Strangely the Amnesty International didn’t find any of the alleged thousands mercenaries used by the regime against the rebels.

    Always the history is written by the victor. From now on the signature is going to be the embematic R2P impress.

  2. Fergus Watt

    Firstly, congrats to ICRtoP on this excellent Blog post. A first-rate sampling of relevant opinion.

    I suggest we not be in too quick a rush to judgment on “Libya’s legacy for R2P.”

    The 2005 World Summit R2P language was weak on the post-conflict elements of R2P, in part because elsewhere within the same Summit Outcome document the UN was creating a Peacebuilding Commission. However, ICISS, and most common-sense understandings of R2P include careful attention to post-conflict peacebuilding and reconstruction in those R2P cases where intervention has necessarily included use of legitimate force.

    A UN-led transition that provides Libyan citizens with their security and democratic constitutional rights would seem to be a necessary element of any “Libya R2P success story.”

    Fergus Watt
    WFM – Canada

  3. Pingback: Syria: Despite Systematic Human Rights Abuses, Deadlock Paralyzes Security Council | ICRtoP Blog

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