Why NATO Intervention in Libya is not a Victory for Responsibility to Protect

There is a moral consensus on R2P as a framework for ending mass atrocities. However, the portrayal of the NATO intervention in Libya as a ‘victory’ for R2P is likely to do more harm than good.

Jide Martyns Okeke, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

There is a moral consensus on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as a framework for ending mass atrocities. The portrayal of the NATO intervention in Libya as a ‘victory’ for R2P is however likely to do more harm than good.

A Google search on the NATO-led intervention in Libya and (R2P) produces almost two million hits. This highlights the popularity and significance of the discourse on the practice of R2P that has remained dominant especially since the NATO intervention in Libya. Acknowledgement must be made to the constellation of institutions, individuals and governments that ensured sustained efforts to re-define sovereignty as responsibility. Notably, the 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) crystallised the concept and built on the idea of (R2P). Also, the 2005 endorsement of R2P by United Nations (UN) member states during the historic Outcome Summit represented both a moral and political re-affirmation of the expedient need to protect populations at risk of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Yet, the question of how to intervene, especially in decisions requiring the use of force without the consent of the target state, remains contested and controversial. Prior to the NATO intervention in Libya, most supporters of R2P sustained its momentum through placing more emphasis on the preventive and non-coercive elements of R2P. For example the 2009 United Nations Secretary General’s Report on the Implementation of R2P underscored the centrality of non-coercive preventive action as a less controversial and more effective way of operationalising R2P.

The UNSCR 1973 on Libya is significant in two main respects. First, it authorised the first UN sanctioned military operation since the 1991 Gulf War. There are widespread claims that this resolution represented the implementation of R2P through the use of force. In contrast, specific use of R2P language was made in UNSCRs on Libya (1970 and 1973) and Côte d’Ivoire (1975) to emphasize the primary role of the states and parties to the conflict in the responsibility to protect civilians. The justification for military intervention in Libya, as contained in UNSCR 1973, was premised on the protection of civilians (PoC) as opposed to specific reference to R2P.

While there may be areas of convergence between the conception and practice of R2P and PoC, their relationship remains deeply contentious and unresolved. Second, UNSCR 1973 and the consequent NATO military intervention in Libya was contrary to the conventional belief that the great powers had either failed to act or had acted too late in situations of impending or actual mass atrocities.

Rather than a victory for R2P, the execution of NATO intervention in Libya may have re-validated a traditional criticism against humanitarian intervention as a mask for the power aspirations of great powers. Specifically, the disproportionate use of force by NATO in Libya for civilian protection-cum-regime change has been severally criticised. It resonates the prudence by international politics expert Ken Booth that international society is governed by “western governments and a variety of local strongmen which bear an uncomfortable resemblance of a global protection racket”. The rectitude of ‘saving strangers’ from mass atrocities in Benghazi appeared to be overshadowed by the self-serving interests of France, Britain, the United States and some Arab league member states in getting rid of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi by all possible means.

The emerging negative consequences of the NATO-led intervention in Libya have further strengthened the resistance against Western (humanitarian) intervention in Africa. There are three main strands in which these negative consequences are discernible, namely at the internal, regional and global levels.  Internally, there is a growing escalation of tribal tensions within Libya that were expressed by sceptics on the eve of, and during the NATO-led intervention. The former Gaddafi regime ruled Libya for over four decades through the deliberate absence of state institutions. The vacuum left in the wake of Gaddafi’s death is beginning to create an expansion of alternatively governed spaces fuelled by a ‘liberated’ state with no monopoly or control over the use of force. For example, in southern Libya, in towns such as Kufra and Sebha, there have been tribal clashes between the Toubou, perceived as being pro-Gaddafi tribesmen, and local brigades loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC). Recent clashes have recorded an estimated 147 deaths and more than 300 injuries. This development has raised fears of protracted conflicts in southern Libya and a possibility of semi-autonomy in the eastern region of Benghazi. Human rights organisations have also expressed concerns about the absence of respect for rule of law, particularly in the treatment and prosecution of pro-Gaddafi supporters by the NTC.

Closely connected to the crisis within post-intervention Libya is the emergence of regional security threats. The historical use of southern Libya as a safe haven for rebels from Chad, Niger and Sudan has increased the likelihood of regional instability. It remains to be seen how these countries will be affected by the increased violence in southern Libya. Notwithstanding, there is already evidence of instability in the Sahel region, fuelled by the Libyan crisis. The relative military success by the Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali and the consequent military coup by the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and the State (Comité Nationale pour le Redressement de la Democracy de l’Etat) is best understood against the backdrop of intense militarisation of the region caused by pro-Gaddafi supporters fleeing Libya with massive military arsenals.

Finally, the implication of the NATO-led intervention for global governance can be seen from various perspectives. First, there is already regression and strong opposition from states (especially China and Russia) for more ‘humanitarian’ intervention elsewhere. A notable example was the use of the UNSC veto by China and Russia, intended to protect Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad regime from actions championed by Britain, France and the United States. Second, the question of double standards in decisions regarding intervention has re-surfaced. Apart from the Libyan crisis, there are/were similar uprisings in some Arab states such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where there is less appetite for a Western-led military operations.

It should be recalled that the initial formulation of the R2P by the ICISS was partly to achieve a political consensus on how to prevent such selectivity. Finally, there may have been a setback in the modest gains achieved in the promotion of cooperation between the African Union (AU) and international organisations such as NATO, the European Union and the UN. In a recent international research symposium, jointly organized by the Institute for Security Studies and the Research Division of the NATO Defense College on AU-NATO Collaboration in Addis Ababa, there was a marked absence of top-level AU officials. It was construed by several observers as an expression of the indignation, distrust and fractures in the operational relationship between the AU and NATO.   It may also reflect a likelihood of stalled progress in current cooperation (as the case of Somalia demonstrates) and, aspiration towards political coherence between the AU and the UN.

There is certainly a universal state of mind with regard to preventing and responding effectively to mass atrocities. For those who continue to see NATO intervention in Libya as a fulfilment of R2P, history and the course of time must serve as the ultimate judge and jury to determine whether this is so.


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