The Crisis in Syria Turns Four: Civil Society Organizations Call for Renewed Push on Restraint of Security Council Veto Use

March 13, 2015

This Sunday, 15 March 2015, marks the 4-year anniversary of the crisis in Syria. For over 1,460 days, the Assad regime—and to a lesser extent, elements of the opposition—have inflicted a ruthless succession of war crimes and crimes against humanity against civilian populations in Syria. Such atrocities, which according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should “shock the international conscience”, include the intentional starving of entire communities for the purpose of gaining a military advantage; the terrorizing of populations through the illegal use of barrel bombs and chemical, artillery, and cluster munition assaults; and inflicting gruesome torture techniques upon thousands of prisoners.

And yet—despite the staggering figures of 210,000 dead, 3.8 million civilians seeking refuge in neighboring countries, and 7.8 million internally displaced—the hopes for an end to the Syrian crisis have dwindled rather than improved over the course of 2014. Though the Assad regime’s human rights violations dwarf those of all other actors, the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a new actor ready and able to commit grisly crimes, has further heightened the risk of mass atrocities in Syria. ISIL’s dramatic rise has been used as a tool by the Assad regime to legitimize its inexcusable actions in the name of fighting ‘terrorists’—a catch-all term used by the government when referring to protestors since the start of the crisis. Furthermore, as the international community increases its response to the crimes committed by ISIL, it risks overshadowing efforts to respond to and resolve the larger Syrian crisis, thus further empowering the Assad government.

In 2005, UN Member States agreed that they had an individual as well as collective responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing—a responsibility which the Syrian government has clearly failed to uphold. However, the below signatories welcome the role that many have played in upholding their
Responsibility to Protect by taking strong, often unprecedented measures within their mandates in an attempt to protect Syrians. Such actions include, inter alia, the six General Assembly resolutions on the crisis; the establishment by the Human Rights Council of an Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate atrocities; the sanctions and arms embargoes imposed by the League of Arab States; the absorption of millions of Syrian refugees by Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey; and the consistent monitoring/documentation, advocacy, and delivery of aid by civil society.

Nevertheless, the UN Security Council, largely due to the veto power wielded by Russia and China, has failed to match the unparalleled actions mentioned above. Despite displaying fleeting unity on resolutions on the removal of chemical weapons and the delivery of humanitarian aid, the four vetoes cast by Russia and China on most Security Council resolutions pertaining to Syria point to that body’s powerlessness to uphold RtoP when the veto is used. Such blatant inaction by the UN organ chiefly responsible for maintaining international peace and security has exacted catastrophic consequences on the people of Syria by delaying and hindering early and subsequent international action.

In this regard, the undersigned civil society organizations working to advance the Responsibility to Protect reiterate their support for efforts being taken, including under the leadership of France as well as Member States within the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency Initiative, to ensure that Permanent Members refrain from using their veto power when confronted with a crisis in which civilians are at impending risk of atrocity crimes.

A refusal by the Permanent Members to use their veto when the Security Council is facing the most daunting of challenges—that of responding to mass atrocities—would mark a historic step for the Council, both in terms of upholding its Responsibility to Protect and in preserving its legitimacy as the primary organ responsible for maintaining international peace and security. Furthermore, such a measure would both help the international community to speak with one voice when responding to the threat or commission of such crimes and ensure that the aforementioned efforts to protect populations undertaken by other actors are not in vain. The undersigned civil society organizations who are actively working to promote RtoP and protect populations from these most horrific crimes thus urge actors at all levels to remain closely engaged with this issue and continue to advocate for Permanent Members to not obstruct united action to protect populations from atrocities. Four years – forty-eight months – 1,460 days of atrocity crimes show the desperate need for such unity—and the appalling price of not acting on the Responsibility to Protect.

1. Action on Societal Violence-KAFA (Jordan)
2. Action pour le Développement et la Paix Endogènes (Democratic Republic of Congo)
3. Al Adala Centre for Human Rights (Saudi Arabia)
4. Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Thailand)
5. American Iranian Council (Iran)
6. The Arab Program for Human Rights (Egypt)
7. The Arab Organization for Human Rights—Libya
8. The Arab Organization for Human Rights—Mauritania
9. Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (Australia)
10. Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities (Hungary)
11. Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
12. Centre for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (Liberia)
13. Coalition for Justice and Accountability (Sierra Leone)
14. Education Centre on the Human Rights of Women Morocco
15. Droits Humains Sans Frontières (Democratic Republic of Congo)
16. Free Tunisia
17. Genocide Alert (Germany)
18. Genocide Watch (USA)
19. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (USA)
20. Global Justice Centre (USA)
21. Global Political Trends Centre (Turkey)
22. Human Rights Information and Training Center (Yemen)
23. Human Security Initiative (Sudan)
24. Igarapé Institute (Brazil)
25. International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
26. Inter-Religious Council for Peace-Tanzania
27. Justice Africa Sudan
28. Justice Without Frontiers (Lebanon)
29. Legists Association of Kuwait
30. LuaLua Centre for Human Rights (Bahrain)
31. Middle East Non-Violence and Democracy (Palestine)
32. Minority Rights Group International (United Kingdom)
33. Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (Canada)
34. Nuon Organization for Peacebuilding (Syria)
35. PeaceNet Kenya
36. Permanent Peace Movement (Lebanon)
37. Salam al Rafidain Organization (Iraq)
38. Scientific Association of Young Political Scientists (Greece)
39. The Stanley Foundation (USA)
40. United Nations Association of Denmark
41. United Nations Association of Sweden
42. United Nations Association of the United Kingdom
43. United to End Genocide (USA)
44. Vision-Gram International (Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo)
45. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom-Netherlands
46. World Federalist Movement—Institute for Global Policy (Netherlands, USA)
47. Zarga Organization for Rural Development (Sudan)




Responsibility while Protecting – the impact of a new initiative on RtoP
14 September 2012

The “responsibility while protecting” (RwP) concept and its potential influence on the development of the Responsibility to Protect norm (RtoP, R2P) have been a source of ongoing discussion in recent months. RwP was first introduced by Brazilian President Dilma Raousseff as “responsibility in protecting” during her address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2011 and then expanded on in a concept note presented to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 9 November 2011 by Brazilian Permanent Representative, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti. RwP seeks to address concerns regarding the implementation of military measures to prevent and halt mass atrocities, emphasizing that prevention is the “best policy” and that the use of force in particular must be regularly monitored and periodically assessed so as to minimize the impact on civilians.

On 21 February 2012, the Brazilian Permanent Mission organized an informal discussion on RwP with Member States, UN actors, and civil society organizations. Debate has since continued, most recently at the fourth UNGA informal, interactive dialogue held on 5 September, with many commentators and scholars reflecting on how RwP will impact RtoP and more importantly, the international response to future situations of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. The ICRtoP Secretariat reached out to civil society organizations with a series of questions in order to map the origins of RwP and analyze the concept’s influence on the Responsibility to Protect.  

I. Reacting to RwP – an initiative to foster discussion or challenge normative progress?

Many civil society advocates of the Responsibility to Protect were initially unsure of the purpose of “responsibility while protecting”, wondering if this initiative was intended to serve as the basis for renegotiating RtoP or provide a forum for dialogue on the effective implementation of the norm. William Pace of the World Federalist Movement – Institute for Global Policy warned that RwP must be properly approached so as not to “reopen the definition [of the Responsibility to Protect] that was agreed to unanimously at the Summit in 2005.” His concern, shared by several contributors, is that RwP proposes adopting guidelines for military intervention, which were not unanimously endorsed by Member States in Paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document. RwP also calls for a sequencing of the norm’s three pillars, which is not in line with the pillar framework in UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Ban Ki-moon’s 2009 report Implementing the Responsibility to Protect,which calls for flexibility in their application. Despite these concerns, there was general openness to the RwP concept as reflected in our member and colleague contributions. Kwesi Aning and Frank Okyere of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centrenote that RwP is a “clarifying principle of RtoP rather than a new concept rivaling an existing concept” and that the “RwP concept paper thus offers the UNGA the opportunity to collectively address the issues around intervention within the third pillar in a manner that will not jeopardize the crucial element of timely and decisive response.”

RwP seeks to address concerns from intervention in Libya

Brazil’s proposal was delivered at a time when controversies arising from the March 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya were prominently discussed in the international arena. Many were concerned that the NATO-led coalition overstepped the boundaries of Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized “all necessary measures,” including a no-fly zone, for the protection of civilians. Bob Zuber of Global Action to Prevent War noted that there is “increasing concern” among states that the use of coercive measures to respond to threats of mass atrocities “[does] not sufficiently reflect the ethical imperatives that led the UN to contemplate remedial action in the first place.” The implementation of the Council’s Resolution also generated discussion on the UNSC’s oversight of military operations, an issue addressed by the RwP concept’s call for additional accountability and monitoring in such cases. Some news articles have supported the view that the P3, Security Council members (France, United Kingdom, and United States), which contributed troops to the NATO operation, had an underlying political agenda to effectuate regime change. Brazil reflected on these concerns within the RwP concept note, though continually stressed that RwP was not proposed in light of the intervention in Libya.

Overall, most contributors agreed that RwP creates much-needed space to restore faith in the RtoP norm. Naomi Kikoler of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect argues that RwP could “serve in many ways as a bridge moving states from a debate about Libya that risked derailing R2P to a forward looking and tangible discussion on implementation.” Specifically reflecting on the fear held by some actors of the misuse of RtoP by powerful states, Nana Afadzinu of the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) highlighted that discussion of RwP, specifically regarding guidelines for and monitoring the implementation of military measures, could give “developing countries the assurance that the RtoP is not just a tool for promoting the imperialist agenda,” in cases where Western forces lead a military intervention. Similarly, Noel Morada of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, notes the within the Asia-Pacific region “the value of RwP is that it articulates the importance of legitimacy of operations and accountability of actors in carrying out the mandate of the UNSC under Pillar III. There is no doubt in my mind that following NATO operations in Libya and the issue of regime change have had some negative impact in the way that RtoP has been viewed in the region.”

How a global and regional rising power can refine implementation of RtoP

In addition to the important issues RwP seeks to address, the significance of the country proposing such an initiative was noted by many commentators. That an increasingly influential leader in the international community sought to engage constructively in the implementation of the norm conveyed the concept’s potential to positively influence RtoP.  Naomi Kikoler highlighted the significance of Brazil’s role as a “contender for a seat on the Security Council” as one of many key reasons not to dismiss the importance of the country’s “voice”.  Daniel Fiott, of Madariaga- College of Europe Foundation noted, “As the world is undergoing some very important shifts in power and influence, and as emerging countries take on more global responsibility on a par with their political and economic standing, Brazil’s RwP concept shows willingness to engage with the RtoP norm…One hopes that Brazil’s RwP concept encourages China, India, Russia and other countries to constructively engage with debates on RtoP.” Building on the point of RwP’s potential to facilitate dialogue on RtoP amongst nations, Naomi Kikoler stated that Brazil should “continue to play an active role in conversations about R2P’s implementation, especially given its unique ability to bring southern and northern states together to advance the norm.”

In Latin America, a region staunchly supportive of the principles of non-interference of state sovereignty, Brazil’s potential to influence states within its own community was welcomed by Andrés Serbin of Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES). Dr. Serbin stated, “It is in the political interest of Brazil to become a global player and, in such, Brazil is going to push this idea as much as possible to try and garner support from the rest of Latin America through its position as a regional leader.”

RwP renews debate on guidelines for military intervention

Although stressing prevention as the best policy, Brazil’s concept note expressed that military measures are sometimes necessary to protect populations from RtoP crimes, and proposed the adoption of guidelines for the use of force to enhance compliance with UNSC mandates and hold actors accountable in implementation. As pointed out by many contributors, this was not the first time such guidelines were proposed; the 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which first articulated RtoP, noted “precautionary principles” to guide the collective use of force.  Given that such criteria were not included in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, some contributors believed that a debate on guidelines for the use of force in the context of RtoP would be “crucially important…but has not received sufficient debate post-2005,” as stated by Fergus Watt of the World Federalist Movement – Canada. Other contributors agreed that such a debate could positively impact the norm, including Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues of Catholic University of Santoswho stated that a “minimum legal framework for interventions is expected,” and suggested that establishing clear rules to define how an intervention should be approved and implemented would confer more legitimacy and support for future action.

On the other hand, some colleagues believed that guidelines could have adverse effects and result in hindering the flexibility upon which RtoP relies in order to address crises on a case-by-case basis. Alex Buskie of United Nations Association of the United Kingdom notes that establishing guidelines may not have the desired effects of improving accountability as a “neat list of limitations [on the use of force] easily smudges and blurs in practice.”  Furthermore, one must consider the feasibility of agreeing on and adopting such guidelines, and if the process of reaching consensus may serve as an additional barrier to rapid response.

Little support for chronological sequencing of the three pillars of RtoP

The chronological sequencing of the pillars of RtoP, as proposed by Brazil, generated vast controversy and debate amongst our members and colleagues. In his articulation of the three pillar framework in the 2009 Report, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, UNSG Ban Ki-moon made clear that the pillars should not be viewed chronologically but rather allow for flexible response to each situation in order to meet the protection needs of populations. Sequencing would only serve to weaken RtoP and create barriers to the implementation of the broad range of measures available within the norm’s framework.

As Alex Buskie writes, a flexible approach is necessary to allow the international community to “employ the most useful strategy when faced with mass atrocities, rather than be forced to tick the boxes in a bureaucratic ‘to do’ list.Kwesi Aning and Frank Okyere also cautioned against “micromanagement” in dictating how measures under RtoP should be implemented, and argued that “Collective action under Chapter VII, as contained in paragraph 139 of the 2005 Outcome Document, should be considered on a case-by-case basis rather than on predetermined chronological sequencing.”

RwP in context of improving Security Council working methods  

Several contributors identified a link between the RwP concept and Security Council working methods –an ongoing agenda item in the UNGA. Within the context of the Responsibility to Protect, debate on the working methods of the UNSC has focused primarily on the use of the veto in cases of mass atrocities, the “selectivity” with which the Council gives attention to situations and the lack of monitoring of UNSC mandates. These issues were widely known before the proposal of RwP, having been put on governments’ agendas in other fora, most notably in a resolution put forth in June 2012 by the “Small Five” countries (S5, which includes Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland). In reflecting on RwP and the S5 resolution, William Pacenoted, “Coincidentally, during the last year, 5 small countries (S5) advanced a resolution on ‘Enhancing the accountability, transparency and effectiveness of the Security Council’ (A/66/L.42/Rev.1) in the GA addressing the deficiency in the working methods of the UNSC and this resolution… included a very important provision (recommendation #20) in which the GA asks the permanent members of the Security Council that possess vetoes to consider not using their veto to block action by the Council when RtoP crimes are occurring.”

As RwP reflects on several of the issues within discussions on UNSC working methods, international actors have increased focus on these concerns, as well as the need for increased accountability and transparency within the Council. Bob Zuber noted that “The Council often resists being seized of potential problems until the violence has reached a threshold that makes it difficult to contain short of coercive intervention; and it remains allergic to any kind of transparent assessment of its authorizations and their consequences. In addition, authorizing ‘outsourced’ coercive measures causes the UN, as we saw in Libya, to lose effective control of its own narrative on mass atrocity response.”

However, some contributors believed it may not be as easy as simply calling on the Council to monitor how mandates are fulfilled. Kwesi Aning and Frank Okyere discussed the challenge posed by limited human and material resources, which are intrinsic for effective monitoring: “it is essential to ascertain how realistic such measures can be applied in the gravest of situations of mass brutality there are standards of ‘responsible response’ to which the Council must be beholden if the UN is to retain wide credibility as the primary, legitimate actor on mass atrocities.

II. Moving forward – making responsible protection a reality

How RwP continues to influence RtoP will be determined by the manner in which actors at all levels approach this new initiative and address the concerns put forth in the concept note. RwP reiterates that prevention is the most important aspect of the RtoP concept, which was widely agreed upon during this year’s UNGA dialogue on “RtoP- timely and decisive response”. Prevention can serve to diminish the frequency of employing military measures in RtoP situations –the main concern of Brazil’s proposal. The necessity of focusing on prevention was reiterated by William Pace who stated that discussion on RwP can increase the political will to address RtoP crises “much quicker and more effectively at an earlier stage to try and avoid  the serious occurrence of these crimes.”  Naomi Kikoler also addressed the necessity and benefits of focusing on prevention, noting that “Going forward, R2P supporters, led by Brazil, should focus on advancing an international prevention agenda. We live in a world where history has shown that far too often little to no action is taken to halt and avert mass atrocities. Prioritizing prevention should help rectify this and, in an ideal world, help render discussions of RwP moot.”

Reflecting on the role that RwP can serve in shaping the future implementation of military measures under RtoP, Daniel Fiott said, “Brazilians are correct to draw our attention to some very difficult questions. Is it always possible to achieve the protection of civilians without removing the perpetrators of violence from office? Should the perpetrators be left in office, would this not impact on chances of lasting post-crisis reconciliation and reconstruction and could it not in turn lead to future violence? After the lessons of Libya and the present crisis in Syria, these are complex and morally testing questions which those who work on RtoP will need to address more comprehensively.” Noting the long-term impact of RwP on RtoP, Fergus Watt of World Federalist Movement- Canada stated that “When such an important government has concerns, yet engages constructively (rather than criticizing or attempting to limit application and/or development of the norm) this reinforces the fact that RtoP has truly arrived.”

See the full responses from blog contributors (pdf)

For further reading see Gareth Evans’s Speech delivered during a public event on RwP in Rio on 24 August 2012, “R2P and RwP After Libya and Syria” and a subsequent opinion by Thomas Wright published in Foreign Policy on 29 August, “Brazil hosts workshop on ‘responsibility while protecting’”.

Research, writing by Amelia Mae Wolf. Edits by Rachel Shapiro, Megan Schmidt and Sapna Chhatpar. Member responses edited by Amelia Mae Wolf. A special thanks to Daniel Fiott, Fergus Watt, Nana Afadzinu, Robert Zuber, Gilberto Rodriguez, Kwesi Aning, Frank Okyere, Andres Serbin, Noel Morada, Alexandra Buskie, William Pace, and Naomi Kikoler. 



Civil Society Reflects on Challenges for RtoP Post-Libya
28 February 2012

Between 17 February and 17 March 2011, the international community faced actual and threatened mass atrocities in Libya as the regime of Muammar Gaddafi failed to uphold its responsibility to protect (RtoP) civilians from crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Widespread human rights abuses were committed by Gaddafi’s regime in response to early protests, including indiscriminate killings, arbitrary arrests, and systematic torture. On 22 February 2011, the former Libyan leader broadcasted his intent to commit further violence against civilians in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, which had fallen under the control of protesters and rebels.

As the crackdown persisted in March, the international community responded to the dire situation in Libya in an early and unprecedented manner, implementing robust, multilateral action to protect civilians.

Civil society organizations from around the world were the first to label Libya an RtoP situation, and urged for decisive action to protect civilians.

Individual states enacted sanctions, asset freezes, and travel bans. Regional organizations such as the League of Arab States (LAS), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the African Union (AU) appealed for restraint. The European Union (EU) also enacted sweeping sanctions.

On 26 February 2011, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed Resolution 1970. The Resolution condemned the crackdown and urged an end to human rights violations, referring the situation to the International Criminal Court, imposing an arms embargo, assets freeze, travel bans, and establishing a new sanctions committee. Just days later, at the behest of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly suspended Libya from the UN rights body.

Still, Gaddafi’s security services and mercenaries continued to attack civilians. Aircraft, tanks, and artillery were reportedly used against protesters. It became increasingly clear that the non-military measures imposed by individual states, regional organizations, and the UNSC were insufficient to respond to the situation.

Following calls to establish a no-fly zone (NFZ) by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the LAS, and with strong support from a multitude of individual Member States, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 on 17 March 2011. The Resolution approved a no-fly zone over Libya, and authorized Member States, in cooperation with the Secretary-General of the UN, to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat.

UN Security Council voting on Resolution 1973, which authorized a no-fly zone in Libya in response to the crackdown by the regime of Colonal Muammar Gaddafi (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)

With 10 votes in favour and 5 abstentions (Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Germany), the Resolution was hailed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as an historic affirmation of the international community’s “determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government.”

It was at the Security Council meeting, when the the use of force to protect civilians in Libya was authorized, however, where discord over the operation began.

The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries favoured a peaceful settlement to the crisis, and warned of the perils of armed intervention. The African Union also proposed a roadmap for peace in Libya, which stood resolutely opposed to foreign intervention in the country.

As a Coalition of international actors – led first by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, and then transferred under the operational control of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – moved to establish the NFZ and naval blockade, the manner in which the civilian protection mission unfolded would exacerbate diplomatic tensions further.

After an intense start to the operation, with the US, France, and the UK conducting considerable military strikes from warships and combat aircraft against assets of the Gaddafi regime that were threatening civilians, months of vicious civil war ensued. Anti-Gaddafi rebels, with the assistance of the NATO-led Coalition, battled pro-Gaddafi elements to a stalemate for control of the country.

The fighting often led to catastrophic consequences for Libyan civilians, and allegations of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity by both sides were widely documented as the battle raged on. Human Rights Watch urged that as the civil war continued, all sides, including the NATO-led Coalition, had an obligation to protect civilians.

The deadlock would slowly be broken from August to October 2011, as rebel forces, with the Coalition’s assistance, made considerable gains against pro-Gaddafi elements. After Tripoli was taken by the rebels, the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte fell. It was outside of Sirte on 20 October – eight months after the revolution began – where Colonel Muammar Gaddafi would be captured and killed by rebel forces, with NATO airpower playing a role in preventing the former Libyan leaders’ convoy from fleeing.

The circumstances around the dictator’s death were troubling, leading the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the ICC’s Chief ProsecutorHuman Rights Watch, and Amnesty International to raise suspicions that a war crime was committed.

It was a violent end to the old Libya, which the National Transitional Council (NTC), the now-ruling provisional authority, declared liberated after Gaddafi’s death.

Upon the death of the Libyan dictator, NATO moved to formally end its military involvement on 31 October 2011, days after the UN Security Council voted to end the authorization of the NFZ on 27 October.


Challenges for RtoP Arise as Mission Ends, Transition Begins

As international military involvement ended in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s death, the uncertain transition began under the internationally supported and relatively organized NTC, which had formed as the official opposition on 27 February 2011.

Four months on, the provisionally-ruling NTC has been unable to rein in roving, heavily-armed militias. Lacking a strong central governing authority and no effective justice system, human rights abuses are allegedly widespread.

Beyond the concerns surrounding Libya’s transition, substantive challenges for the Responsibility to Protect have arisen in the aftermath of the UN-mandated, NATO-led operation.

Allegations of Civilian Casualties from NATO Actions

While touted as a successful operation by UN and NATO officials, allegations of civilian casualties have been raised, which have further embroiled the mission in controversy.

During the conflict, Amnesty International raised concerns over NATO airstrikes that had allegedly killed Libyan civilians, and urged the organization to investigate all instances of reported civilian deaths.

These calls have been reinforced by civil society organizations, like Human Rights Watch, in the aftermath of the conflict.  NATO Watch, an independent virtual think-tank that researches and analyzes the organization and its actions, has called for an independent inquiry into the operation, a key question of which would be how many – civilians and combatants – were killed in NATO sorties in Libya over the course of its involvement.

While NATO has yet to conduct any formal inquiry, according to a November 2011 report of the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Louis Moreno-Ocampo, the Court will take up reports of civilian casualties in its investigation into the situation.  The seriousness of these allegations merits such action by the ICC in order to ensure, through an independent forum, that they are thoroughly investigated.

Addressing these allegations in important for the RtoP, as the Coalition’s actions, including reports of civilian casualties, have fueled concerns expressed by a number of countries regarding the overall manner in which the use of force was implemented to protect civilians in Libya.


Concerns Over the Use of Force to Protect Civilians in Libya

The manner in which NATO and its allies enforced the UN mandate in Libya has led to vocalized concerns from Russia, China, Brazil, India, and other states. Specifically, these countries have charged that the UN’s mandate in Libya was overstepped, with the Coalition actively pursuing regime change instead of civilian protection. More generally, they have expressed unease with the use of force to protect civilians under the RtoP framework.

Reflective of the disquiet of these countries over the mandate overstep in Libya, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Hardeep Puristated on 22 February 2012 that, “Libya has given RtoP a bad name”. The Indian Ambassador went further, criticizing “over-enthusiastic” members of the international community for misusing Resolution 1973”, and stated that their only interest was the, “use of all necessary means to bomb the hell out of Libya” in the pursuit of regime change.

Channeling concerns with the use of force, the Brazilian government has proposed ‘responsibility while protecting’ (RwP) to reassess the manner in which a military response is implemented to protect civilians. The concept has attracted considerable international interest, and was discussed at an informal dialogue convened by the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the UN on 21 February 2012. RwP will likely continue to shape debate on RtoP both inside and outside the halls of the United Nations, particularly as the international community grapples with challenges post-Libya at this years’ General Assembly dialogue on response measures within the third pillar of the RtoP framework.

Implications for Syria

Along with generating frank debate within and outside of the United Nations, the blowback from the Libya operation has also carried unintended consequences for civilians suffering brutality at the hands of their own governments elsewhere.

As we’ve documented in previous posts on our blog on the situation in Syria, all of the BRICS countries cited the overstep in Libya in registering their opposition to a military response to the nearly year-long brutal crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad.

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, casts his veto against a draft resolution on the situation in Syria in 04 February 2012 (UN Photo, Paulo Filgueiras)

Ensuring a Libya-style intervention does not occur in Syria has been also been one of the points raised in recent UNSC deliberations on the situation by Russia and China, who have twice employed their vetoes to strike down resolutions on the crisis.

As the international community continues to search for a lasting solution to the crisis in Syria, Libya’s shadow has certainly loomed large in the debate, with very real implications for civilians on the ground.

Civil Society Reflects on Challenges for RtoP After Libya

Triggered by the operation in Libya, the concerns over the manner in which the use of force is implemented to protect civilians will certainly continue to shape RtoP, both in the context of the debate surrounding the norm and the manner in which it is employed to respond to given country specific-situations like Syria.

To better understand the challenges posed for RtoP, we asked a few ICRtoP Member organizations from throughout the world to reflect and provide insight on the following questions:

  • Was the UN-mandated, NATO-led operation in Libya a step forward or a setback for the norm? What implications – positive and/or negative – does the Libya operation carry for RtoP moving forward?
  • What are the responsibilities of the international community as Libya transitions into the post-Gaddafi era? Despite the ending of the NATO mandate in Libya today, should the international community continue to play a role in civilian protection?
  • Through an RtoP lens, what lessons can be learned from Libya for future cases where international action – whether non-coercive or coercive – is necessary to protect civilians?

The enlightening responses we received drew on the individual expertise of these ICRtoP Members, and brought in unique regional perspectives as well. We encourage you to read these civil society reflections on RtoP post-Libya:

Excerpt from the response from Rachel Gerber, Program Officer at The Stanley Foundation:


In terms of long-term norm development, how the international community addresses these questions will likely prove much more important than the operation that raised them. If this moment is seized as one to proactively consider the Libya experience and debate means and methods in a way that builds consensus and refines understanding of RtoP practice and application, it has the potential to be mobilized as a significant leap forward for the concept. If these areas of contention are left unaddressed, they are likely to fester, becoming further entrenched and potentially debilitating for RtoP…READ MORE

Excerpt from the response crafted by Gus Miclat, Executive Director of Initiatives for International Dialogues:

The international community must ensure the democratic transition and transformation of Libya by seeing to it that all domestic actors – including those in the previous regime- are assured of their rights to participate in this transformation.  Initially, the rule of law must be paramount; it should clearly assure the civilians – including those again who are supporters of the ousted regime – are protected from violent reprisals, kangaroo trials and the like. It should also ensure that those who perpetrated crimes- including those of the victorious militias and former rebels- are…READ MORE 

Excerpt of the response from Robert Schütte, President of Genocide Alert:

Eight months into the decision, most [German] policy makers do – on the record and off the record – admit that the abstention was a failure and that Berlin should at least have politically supported the intervention. Interest into the RtoP has significantly surged, and discussions about Germany’s responsibility to support the prevention of mass atrocities have become more prominent since…READ MORE

Excerpt of the response from Jillian Siskind, President of Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights:

First, it is questionable whether the protection of civilians was the foremost concern of NATO, which appeared focused on regime change.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it demonstrated a real risk with a military intervention without civil society support or a civilian plan to allow for a safer society once the hostilities were over…READ MORE

Excerpt of the response written by Sarah Teitt, Outreach Director and China Programme Coordinator for the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect:

The lasting impact on the normative development of RtoP can only be positive if the UN faces head on the critiques of the intervention–whether it was too hasty (what evidence is needed to establish credible threat of atrocities), whether NATO’s action exceeded the UN mandate (how should the Security Council oversee its protection mandates to ensure that they are not a pretext for regime change), and whether there were grave breaches of international humanitarian law on both sides…READ MORE

Excerpt from Assessing Libya, by Dr. Robert Zuber of Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict:

To our mind, the mission evolved in ways that were somewhat expedient for the implementing powers but that did not elevate confidence that the international system yet has what it takes to provide even-handed, mandate-driven, last-resort responses to the threat of mass atrocities…READ MORE

For our analysis on the impact of action in Libya on RtoP, please see the ICRtoP educational tool on the international response to the crisis.

For a full overview of the situation in Libya, please see our Libya Crisis Page, which includes a list of civil society statements on RtoP in the context of the situation in Libya, as well as the debate surrounding the intervention.


Research, writing by Evan Cinq-Mars. Edits by Rachel Shapiro and Megan Schmidt. Member responses edited by Evan Cinq-Mars. A special thanks to Rachel Gerber, Gus Miclat, Robert SchütteJillian Siskind, Sarah Teitt, and Robert Zuber. 

4 responses to “FEATURES

  1. Pingback: FEATURE: Civil Society Reflects on Challenges for RtoP Post-Libya | ICRtoP Blog

  2. Pingback: al-Senussi Arrest: Conflicting Extradition Requests, Concerns About Libya’s Justice System | ICRtoP Blog

  3. Pingback: Debating the Responsibility to Protect in Libya, Syria | ICRtoP Blog

  4. Pingback: A “Responsibility Not to Veto”? The S5, the Security Council, and Mass Atrocities | ICRtoP Blog

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