The Responsibility to Protect: the lessons of Libya

By Desiree van Iersel

When a country is torn by civil strife and gross human rights violations occur, the international community has the responsibility to protect and help the civilians in need. But one of the key points in international law is the non-violability of state sovereignty. Solutions to this issue were the creation of humanitarian intervention and later the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect.

During the 2005 World Summit, all UN member states decided to prevent genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing through the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. At the basis of this doctrine is the decision to take coercive action against a country to protect the civilians within its borders from suffering harm (Evans, 2009). This doctrine provides the UN with a framework for measures that can be taken to help countries in many different situations, such as civil strife. These measures include pacific ways of mediation, economic sanctions and as a very last resort, the use of force (UN General Assembly, 2005). The responsibility of employing this very last resort lies solely with the UN Security Council and can only be called upon in times of emergency (UN General Assembly, 2005).

The United Nations defines the Responsibility to Protect as follows: “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.                                                                   

The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” (UN General Assembly, 2005, 31).

This responsibility has further been elaborated upon in many reports, among which the structuring of Responsibility to Protect in its three pillars. The pillars are the following: I. The protection responsibilities of the state, II. International assistance and capacity-building and III. Timely and decisive response (UN General Assembly, 2009). These are all equally important and not of sequential nature (UN General Assembly, 2009).

This doctrine was created as a response to the failure of the international community to prevent the mass atrocities committed in Rwanda and Srebrenica during the 1990’s (UN General Assembly, 2000). The international community came to the conclusion that humanitarian intervention -the use of military force against another state to end human rights violations- was a massive breach of state sovereignty and therefore not an appropriate course of action (UN General Assembly, 2000). Therefore, they stretched the importance of non-violent ways to settle disputes and protect civilian lives in the new doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect.

Humanitarian intervention was always marked by the one-dimensionality of military action, but the responsibility to protect is not only limited to these actions as it encompasses the other “Responsibilities” the UN has taken up as well: the Responsibility to Prevent and the Responsibility to Rebuild (Evans, 2009). These two enshrined the shift in thinking of state sovereignty from one of control to one of dual-responsibility of every state: to respect the sovereignty of other states and to respect the dignity and basic rights of the citizens living in its territory (Evans, 2009).

When a state is not capable of protecting its citizens or is the perpetrator of crimes against humanity, the UN first tries to prevent further atrocities from happening by non-violent means. When this fails, the next course of action would be an intervention to prevent further human rights violations from happening. There were several criteria created in 2000 that need to be met before an intervention in the internal affairs of a state can be allowed.        There needs to be: I. a just cause, a large-scale loss of life must be either anticipated or happening or for instance ethnic cleansing by state action, failure or negligence. II. Right intention, such as preventing human suffering. III. Last resort, so military action can only be taken when all non-military means were without success IV. Proportional means, the scale, duration, and intensity of the military intervention should be as minimal and as manageable to reach the goal. V. Reasonable prospects and VI. Right authority (Evans, 2009). The two last criteria are linked to the chances of success and not making matters worse by intervening rather than by non-intervention. The last criterion focuses on the fact that military action must be taken through the Security Council and not just by a state acting on its own accord and judgment (Evans, 2009).

Even though this form of action has all these criteria that need to be met and can only be used by the UN Security Council, there is still a lot of debate on this topic, the implementation thereof and especially on the cases in which this responsibility has been used as a justification to intervene in internal affairs (Tutu, 2008). One of these controversial cases is the intervention in Libya in the Arab Spring in 2011.

This intervention started due to the problems in Libya between the government of Muammar Gaddafi and the Libyan rebels in the civil war that started in 2011.

On February 17th 2011, there was an uprising against the government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi. Libyan security forces responded harshly, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians (CNN, 2016). Anti-government protests then spread to surrounding villages and reached the Libyan capital Tripoli. There, the protesters were met by Gaddafi loyalists and a harsh crackdown followed. All these uprisings throughout the country resulted in the resignation of several of Gaddafi’s representatives and ambassadors (CNN, 2016). Later that month, two Libyan fighter jets landed on Malta and requested asylum as they refused to bomb civilians and had defected from the Libyan forces. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon asked Gaddafi to stop the conflict immediately, but this was to no avail. Gaddafi broadcasted on national television that he would never leave the country and that he would rather die a martyr than to give up power (CNN, 2016). The international community responded to this message by imposing economic sanctions. President Obama gave an order to freeze all Gaddafi’s assets and the UN Security Council and the European Union both placed Libya under an arms embargo. The community also asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the events in Libya for possible crimes against humanity (CNN, 2016). In March of that year, NATO began to watch Libya twenty-four hours a day through air surveillance and its defense ministers met to discuss a no-fly zone over the Libyan territory, which was soon established.

By that time, the rebels had taken control of the eastern regions of the country and established an interim government there. The international community decided to take action and the US initiated Operation Odyssey Dawn (CNN, 2016). On March 24th, NATO decided to take command of operation Odyssey Dawn and worked to enforce the no-fly zone above Libyan territory and bomb Gaddafi strongholds. A month later, Italy announced that they officially recognized the rebel Libyan Transitional Council as the legitimate government of the country. They were the third country after France and Qatar to do so and more countries followed suit.

The investigation launched by the ICC resulted in arrest warrants for Muammar Gaddafi, his son Saif, his brother-in-law, and Gaddafi’s forces, on the charges of committing crimes against humanity. Gaddafi was never brought before the court because he was captured and killed by rebel forces on the 20th of October (CNN, 2016). Soon after this, NATO’s military operation in Libya was cancelled by the UN Security Council and put into effect on October 31st of that year.

That same month, the National Transitional Council then became the official government authority of Libya (CNN, 2016).

In this civil war, the UN used the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. This case actually was the first time the UN Security Council authorized the use of force against the wishes of the country’s ruling authority to prevent human rights violations from occurring. In previous cases, there had been consent from the government of the country or there was no government in place (Goodhart, 2013). By taking this action in Libya, the Security Council showed that they are willing to enforce the basic principle of the Responsibility to Protect.

This principle was always meant to supersede the inviolable right of state sovereignty to halt human rights violations, even if it is against the wishes of the state in question (Goodhart, 2013). The latter point was very much the case in Libya, because Gaddafi loudly claimed that the countries involved in operation Odyssey Dawn were terrorists and even promised them a long war (CNN, 2016). On March 17th, the Security Council agreed to Resolution 1973, which authorized the no-fly zone over Libya. The actions taken by the Security Council were spurred on by several regional bodies that openly condemned the violence in Libya. Among those was the Gulf Cooperation Council which called on the UN Security Council to “take all necessary measures to protect civilians, including enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya’, and condemned “crimes committed against civilians, the use of heavy arms and the recruitment of mercenaries by the Libyan regime” (Bellamy, 2011, 841). Among others that supported this statement was the League of Arab Nations, who even suspended Libya’s membership until the violence was put to an end, asked for a no-fly zone, and the creation of safe areas to protect Libyan civilians (Bellamy, 2011).

What was interesting about the request by the LAS was that it went against one of its traditional values: non-interference in a sovereign state (Bellamy, 2011). There are several factors that may have played a role in this rather odd decision.

First of all, the meeting of the LAS consisted of a majority of Gulf Cooperation Council members that had already issued a statement asking for action by the Security Council. This majority may have swayed the other voters. Secondly, Gaddafi’s regime was widely distrusted among the members of the African Union and the countries of the Arab League (Bellamy, 2011). Gaddafi himself had insulted several prominent members of the Arab countries which did not help his general standing in this matter. A third factor in the form of actual opposition and the notion of protecting civilians may also have played a role in this case. Drawing the attention away from the problems in their own countries may also have helped in issuing this statement, but whatever the reasoning behind it may have been, it resulted the adoption of Resolution 1973 (Bellamy, 2011).

Besides this, it also put to rest concerns on the part of the United States. The Obama administration had concerns regarding the possible intervention in Libya due to casualties, budget and alienating the rest of the Muslim countries in the region (Bellamy, 2011). The statement by the LAS took away the last point of concern (Bellamy, 2011). The combined statements of the GCC, the LAS, several African countries and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the international concern for the atrocities committed in Libya resulted the Security Council voting for action (Bellamy, 2011).

Advocates of the Responsibility to Protect see the new resolution as further evidence of the development of the precedence of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect over state sovereignty. This also creates their expectation of the case of Libya as a sort of precedent for cases to come (Goodhart, 2013).  Contrary to this, it has been argued to have been a very clear case for military intervention and that it will not be used as a precedent due to the particular circumstances surrounding this intervention (Goodhart, 2013).

This intervention often regarded as “a model intervention”, however a more precise assessment showed that it actually increased the duration of the civil war by six times and the casualties by at least seven times. (Kuperman, 2013).  One of the most prominent issues is the notion that NATO did not intervene to protect the Libyan citizens, but just to topple Gaddafi’s regime (Kuperman, 2013). NATO’s forces attacked Gaddafi’s forces when they were retreating and even did so in Sirte, where Gaddafi’s forces did not attack or pose a threat to the civilians (Kuperman, 2013). Besides this, NATO’s forces helped the rebel group, even when this group rejected the offers by the government for cease-fires, and provided them with weapons, training and the deployment of troops from Qatar. This aid eventually helped them kill Gaddafi and seize power in October 2011.

One of the notions that is commonly held about the intervention in Libya was that it spared lives and helped the country. This idea is flawed as NATO’s intervention actually prolonged the war and resulted in a higher death toll. In mid-March, Gaddafi had already regained control over the situation and the rebels were retreating. The conflict was about to be ended six weeks after it started with approximately 1000 casualties. When NATO sided with the rebels, they gave them enough strength to continue their attack and thus prolonging the civil war for months. This caused at least 7000 more deaths (Kuperman, 2013). The UN intervention did not only have a negative impact on the war itself, but also on the current situation in the country. The winning side, the rebels, have started reprisal killings and expelled approximately 30,000 residents of Tawerga. The rebels claim that these people were mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi (Kuperman, 2013). As was reported by Human Rights Watch, these crimes may amount to crimes against humanity -something that was not present under Gaddafi’s regime (Kuperman, 2013).

Other problems in the country are linked to the different rebel groups that are now active in Libya. The fiercest rebels in the civil war were the Radical Islamist groups, who refuse to listen to the new government in place. They form a constant threat to the country, which is seen in for instance the attack on US facilities in Benghazi which resulted in the death of a US ambassador and the vehicle bomb which demolished half of the French embassy. This all leads to great insecurity and the demand for a strong leader to deal with these issues (Kuperman, 2013).

Another problem posed by these radical groups is that they now have gained access to Gaddafi’s gigantic weapon arsenal. This makes this group even more dangerous to the inhabitants of the country (Kuperman, 2013).

The intervention in Libya has not only led to problems in the country itself, it also spurred on problems in the neighboring countries. For instance, it changed the formerly peaceful protests in Syria to more violent ones in hopes of an intervention such as the one in Libya (Kuperman, 2013). This resulted in the country’s death toll increasing tenfold and silence on the part of the Security Council. Another example of a country that suffered from the intervention in Libya is Mali. It used to be a peaceful, democratic country but after Gaddafi’s defeat, his soldiers of Malian decent fled to their home country. There they launched a rebellion which resulted in the army overthrowing the President. This rebellion was soon hijacked by Radical Islamists and Al-Qaida. They installed Sharia law and declared that the north of the country was independent from the rest of Mali (Kuperman, 2013). By 2012, this area was the largest territory controlled by Muslim extremists in the world which resulted in massive displacement of people and overall chaos (Kuperman, 2013).

The intervention in Libya has had a lot of negative effects on the country and the region. What this case really shows is that the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect needs considerable caution. What we have seen in the case of Libya is that it can easily backfire and result in more chaos. This is partly due because some rebel groups believe that they can attract international intervention when using violence in protests. This intervention is considered as a means to help them achieve their (political) objectives (Kuperman, 2013). Taking up arms will pose a threat to civilians before the international community can actually take action. Therefore, the doctrine that is supposed to protect civilians actually backfires as it will probably result in a greater threat of loss of life (Kuperman, 2013). To counter the idea that rebels in violent conflict will get help, it is necessary to be more cautious when intervening in a country and especially when siding with the rebels (Kuperman, 2013).  This point is also linked to the fact that in this case, regime change was (very likely to have been) one of the objectives of the intervention. This is contrary to what this doctrine is meant for and can also lead to more loss of life and chaos.

One of the aspects of the doctrine, the Responsibility to Rebuild was something that was lacking in this case. Their obligation under this responsibility is to prevent revenge killings and ethnic cleansing after the objectives of the intervention were met. As was seen in the evaluation of the intervention, the objectives under the Responsibility to rebuild were not met.                                                                                                                                                 One of the other objectives is to ensure justice and reconciliation. Since the rebel group has actually committed revenge killings as a form of doing justice, there is obviously a failure on that part of the international community (Mckay, 2011).

Therefore, Libya can definitely not be considered to be a “model intervention” as the situation after the war is probably a lot worse than it ever was under Gaddafi. What this intervention also shows is that the concept of the Responsibility to Protect may be a good aspiration, but the practice of such a controversial intervention is still a difficult matter.

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