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Libya and the 'Responsibility to Protect' doctrine.

By Kevin Boreham - posted Friday, 26 August 2011

The UN mandated NATO military intervention, which has led to the imminent fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, has been hailed as a successful 'first true test' of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

But R2P's apparent success in Libya has shown that it has an inherent flaw: R2P cannot succeed without changing the regime that provoked the intervention. The Libyan operation has aggravated concerns about R2P as a vehicle for western intervention in Third World states and caused greater resistance to its future use.

The demise of a regime responsible for the mass atrocities that trigger an R2P intervention is logically inevitable. How can an intervention halt the commission of these crimes but then leave their perpetrator in power? This inevitable implication of R2P has been dramatically demonstrated by the course of the NATO intervention in Libya.


Security Council resolution 1973 of 17 March, which referred to the Responsibility to Protect, gave a specific mandate for the use of force in Libya: "To take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory."

President Obama was careful to state on 18 March that, "we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya." Ten days later Obama said, "while our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives, we continue to pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people."

It quickly became apparent, as the New York Times reported on 28 March, that the US and its European allies had "given it the most expansive possible interpretation, amounting to an all-out assault on Libya's military." The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 24 August that NATO had played a key role in helping the Libyan rebels devise and execute their successful push towards Tripoli.

President Obama at a press conference with French President Sarkozy on 27 May in Deauville, admitted that "meeting the U.N. mandate of civilian protection cannot be accomplished when Gaddafi remains in Libya directing his forces in acts of aggression against the Libyan people."

Russia, which abstained from the vote on SCR 1973, together with China, Brazil, Germany and India, has denounced the expansion of the Western intervention.

Foreign Minister Lavrov said on 28 March that, "intervention by the [Western] coalition in what is essentially an internal civil war is not sanctioned by the UN Security Council resolution."


President Medvedev said on 21 June that Russia would veto a Security Council resolution on Syria similar to SCR 1973, "because it is my deep conviction that a good resolution has been used to provide cover for a military operation." This week Russia has again blocked Security Council sanctions on Syria.

Concern about NATO's use of force to implement SCR 1973 permeated the annual dialogue on R2P in the UN General Assembly on 12 July.

China made a very pointed statement that "no party should engage in regime change or get involved in civil war in the name of protecting civilians. The implementation of the [relevant] Security Council resolution must be strict and accurate."

Brazil noted that, "the use of force [in Libya] has made a political solution more difficult to achieve." Mexico referred to the divisive effect that the Libyan crisis was having on the international community, while Kenya said that the experience with implementation of R2P so far "has been at best worrisome, and at worst, deeply disconcerting."

The Western intervention in Libya has been much more competent than the coalition invasion in Iraq in 2003, and the Obama Administration and NATO have shown a more intelligent understanding of the need to plan for the 'post-war' than the Bush Administration.

While the Iraq invasion was clearly contrary to international law, the NATO intervention in Libya has been lawful-ish. But the expansion of its aims to include regime change may be counter-productive to future efforts to invoke the R2P to achieve its stated objective, which is the protection of civilian populations, not the removal of odious dictators.

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About the Author

Kevin Boreham teaches law at the ANU College of Law.

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