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Libya and the international community’s 'responsibility to protect'

By Andrew Garwood-Gowers - posted Friday, 25 February 2011

The Libyan regime’s attacks on its own civilian population are a test case for the international community’s commitment to the notion of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P). The UN Security Council’s statement on 22 February 2011 explicitly invoked this concept by calling on “the Government of Libya to meet its responsibility to protect its population”. Yet, with Muammar Gaddafi encouraging further violence against protesters and threatening to fight “until the last drop of blood” it seems unlikely that the Security Council’s warning will be heeded.  Greater pressure from the international community will be needed to bring an end to the atrocities in Libya.  The international response to the Libyan crisis represents an opportunity to translate the theory of R2P into practice.

The concept of R2P evolved out of dismay at the international community’s failure to prevent atrocities at Rwanda, Srebrenica and elsewhere in the 1990s. It consists of 3 mutually reinforcing pillars: first, that states have an obligation to protect their own citizens from mass atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity); second, that the international community should assist states in fulfilling their obligations under pillar one; and third, that where states are “manifestly failing” to protect their populations the international community has an obligation to respond in a “timely and decisive manner”. International responses under the third pillar could include non-forceful measures such as economic sanctions, or even collective military action authorised by the Security Council in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

This third pillar has proved to be the most controversial, as it challenges the traditional principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention in the affairs of other states.  Critics of R2P, such as Noam Chomsky, see it as a mere re-branding of the concept of “humanitarian intervention”, and as a cloak for Western imperialism. Yet despite those claims all states endorsed the concept of R2P at the 2005 World Summit. Although R2P has not yet reached the status of a legal norm imposing a positive duty on states to intervene to prevent mass atrocity crimes, there is a clear political and moral commitment to this concept. References to R2P are increasingly appearing in UN resolutions, including on Darfur, and in the Security Council’s recent statement on Libya. The real question, however, is whether the international community is ready to translate words into deeds by taking “timely and decisive action” to halt mass atrocities.


In the Libyan case we are clearly in third pillar territory. Reports of aircraft bombing protesters and foreign mercenaries attacking civilians indicate that Libya has gone beyond the threshold of “manifestly failing” to protect its own population.  It is, in fact, actively targeting civilians.  In such circumstances, the responsibility to protect the Libyan people has shifted from Libya to the international community.

What then can the international community do to halt the violence in Libya?  The first step would be for the Security Council to pass a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter declaring the situation in Libya to be a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression”.  This would then allow the Security Council to pass further Chapter VII resolutions employing a range of measures to pressure the Libyan government to end the violence.  All UN member states are required to comply with Chapter VII resolutions. Possible measures that could be taken against Libya include:

  1. Imposing sanctions and freezing assets of members of the Libyan regime;
  2. Enforcing an arms embargo to prevent weapons from being transferred to the Libyan government;
  3. Establishing an inquiry into the violence in Libya, possibly through a referral to the International Criminal Court;
  4. Establishing and enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya in order to prevent aerial attacks on civilians;
  5. Authorising collective military action to intervene in Libya to protect civilians from violence.

Leaving aside questions over the effectiveness of any of these measures, the key issue is whether the international community has the political will to respond decisively using Chapter VII of the Charter.  The international response so far – comprising condemnations by individual heads of state and a mere “statement” from the Security Council – suggests there is little appetite for concrete action to pressure Libya to stop attacks on civilians.  Even if the United States or Europe were to push for strong measures against Gaddafi, China and Russia would probably veto any proposed resolution on a no-fly zone or military action.

In any case, the wheels of international institutions turn slowly. If the UN were to muster the necessary political will to take significant action against Libya any such response is unlikely to provide protection to those civilians who are under imminent threat of violence.  Without a well-trained rapid response force which can be deployed immediately to respond to R2P situations there is little prospect of being able act swiftly enough to protect civilians on the ground.

Events in Libya are moving quickly and the situation will probably reach its end point before the international community takes any decisive action.  Most analysts expect Gaddafi to be forced from power, but he appears determined to fight till the death. Further atrocities against civilians may be part of his final stand.  Unless the world acts quickly and decisively the Libyan crisis will prove to be another missed opportunity for the international community to prove its commitment to the “responsibility to protect”.

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About the Author

Andrew Garwood-Gowers is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology. He was educated at Cambridge University and the University of Queensland. Andrew’s research lies at the intersection of international law and international relations, with a focus on international security.

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