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Responsibility to Protect – The Case of Libya

Keerthi Sampath Kumar is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 02, 2011

    Situations such as Libya are always a cause of dilemma for the international community. What causes more harm, engaging or becoming complicit bystanders? When should the UN Security Council sanction military intervention and when should it not? As Gregg Carlstrom wrote, ‘the Libya no-fly zone is either a humanitarian mission or an excuse to meddle, depending on who you ask.’1 This pretty much sums up the debate over the military intervention in Libya. While the West and other supporters of the no-fly zone over Libya call it a humanitarian operation that prevented wider civilian casualties, critics (read China and Russia) on the other hand opine that it would lead to a ‘humanitarian disaster’ and warn against causing civilian casualties through the use of armed force.

    United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 (2011) marked the first military implementation of the doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). It was explicitly invoked in the resolution, which declared that a core goal is ‘protecting civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.’ The resolution, which is based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter, gives the Security Council wide-ranging authority to identify and stop ‘threats to peace’ and ‘acts of aggression’. Ramesh Thakur argues that R2P responds to the idealized UN as the symbol of an imagined and constructed community of strangers: we are brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.2 Credibility to the Western operation in Libya is also offered by the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS, 2001), which states that ‘military intervention for human protection purposes is an exceptional and extraordinary measure’ and ‘there must be serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings or immediately likely to occur’ for it to be warranted. Those who support the need for intervention argue that if, in the case of Libya, R2P was ignored, then the whole principle of protecting civilian populations would have been seriously weakened, if not rendered totally worthless.

    The military action in Libya has, however, raised several questions among the sceptics. Resolution 1973 states it clearly that the military intervention is about protecting Libya’s civilian population from attacks by its own government and not concerned with occupying or dismembering the country. The ICISS report explicitly states that the objective for any military intervention should be that of protection of a population and not the defeat of a state. The commitment of returning the territory to its sovereign owner at the conclusion of hostilities should be clear right from the outset. But observers argue that the hidden agenda behind the intervention in Libya is ‘regime change’. This fear is justified given that the Western leaders recently affirmed their stance on Libya by stating, ‘…it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power.’3 David Hillstrom4 assesses the situation as one where there is a glaring double standard at play. He questions, if Libya, then why not Yemen and Bahrain? Violence is perpetrated against humans in many places, but how does one intervene in one spot and not in another without drawing accusations of hypocrisy? The West has been backing, even arming, regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that are crushing dissent at the very time that coalition troops are intervening to supposedly protect dissidents in Libya.

    The implementation of Resolution 1973 has also drawn opposition from the African actors. Days after the enforcement, the African actors, including the African Union, questioned the interpretation of the mandate and argued that what is happening in Libya involves more than just implementing a no-fly zone and that the powers involved are exceeding the stated intentions and objectives of the resolution. There is also apprehension about the ambiguity of the objective behind the intervention. The term ‘any means necessary’, as mentioned in the resolution, could allow ulterior motives or interests to creep into the mission in Libya. Though the situation in Libya calls for a humanitarian intervention, it has been posited by some critics that the primary motivation for the intervention is to secure Libya’s oil supply.

    Others argue that the problem with UNSCR 1973 is that it is ultra vires the UN Charter; the Security Council cannot authorize something that the UN Charter prohibits.5 Additionally, the concept of R2P is, in itself, abstract enough to cover and legitimize a range of military interventions.6 Were the human rights abuses committed or threatened by the Libyan authorities sufficiently serious to warrant outside involvement? In Libya, thus far, no evidence of genocide has surfaced. It is far from obvious that the Libyan regime has engaged in acts which cross the threshold of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.7 Though the Security Council authorized the war in Libya, it does not necessarily make it legitimate. Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany, which represent more than 40 per cent of the world’s population, abstained on UNSCR 1973, thus raising doubts about the international support for such a mission. The abstention of these five members of the Security Council on the issue has also come under the scanner. Given that the ambiguity of UNSCR 1973 caused apprehensions among the critics in Russia and China, their abstention from the resolution has only enabled military aggression and expansion of war in the region. The onus lay on them to use their veto power and stall any further action on the resolution until and unless they were provided with a comprehensive report on the situation. Neither does it absolve countries like India, Brazil and Germany of ‘their failure to mount an effective political challenge to the drive for war.’8

    Along with a clear and unambiguous mandate, pre-intervention planning also demands an exit strategy of intervening troops. There is no substitute for a clear and effective exit strategy. But the coalition forces that intervened in Libya lack an exit strategy and this has caused apprehensions among the African nations. Moreover, an unplanned exit could have disastrous or unsettling implications for the country and could serve to discredit even the positive aspects of intervention. The ICISS report calls for a common military approach, unity of command and clear and unequivocal communications and chain of command among involved partners. Within a week of passing of Resolution 1973, the Arab League, which initially supported the no-fly zone, reversed its stance and criticized the use of force that it had originally authorized. The lack of clarity about the goal led to a split between the military and the politicians in Britain and the US over whether Gaddafi himself is the target. Cracks have also developed within NATO over the military strategy in Libya. Additionally, the initial talk of a no-fly zone has proved to be irrelevant as the Gaddafi threat came from the ground and not from the air. The distance from the ground also made it hard for the coalition forces to target the pro-Gaddafi forces. This caused civilian deaths, the very people whom the intervention sought to protect, and the West effortlessly euphemized them as ‘friendly fire’ attacks. Voices within India have not been parsimonious with their criticism of the West and it is not without reason. Brahma Chellany argues that the military intervention in a tribally divided Libya highlights a selective approach to the promotion of freedom and the protection of civilians. The ‘mission creep’ that has characterized the Western powers’ military attack raises troubling questions about their Libyan strategy.9

    India’s position on the Libyan crisis makes one wonder if the country which is seeking a permanent place at the high table in the UN Security Council could have done any better? The answer would perhaps be a ‘no’. India’s abstention on the resolution was compelled by certain pragmatic considerations.10 It had to balance between its historical opposition to military intervention and concerns about being isolated among both Western powers and the Arab countries. Moreover, when permanent members like China and Russia were unsure of vetoing the resolution, India may not have been able to take a tougher stance. India, in retrospect, believes that it did the right thing by abstaining. Military intervention is not short of dangers and risks and India was all along apprehensive about the loss of ‘innocent civilian lives’. India’s stand is further justified as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Libya had not finalized his report, which was a prerequisite for the UN Security Council to pass the resolution. The lack of credible information of the situation on the ground and the commencement of bombing before the settlement of command and control issues make India’s position on the issue stronger.11

    India’s stand on the Libyan issue was made apparent when Resolution 1970 was passed. It had stated that it ‘deplored the use of force’ and preferred a ‘calibrated and gradual approach’ to the issue. Though India received criticism for not taking a tougher stance and was accused of being a cat on the wall, today, with the rise in civilian casualties and the risk of a Iraq blunder being repeated, India’s abstention appears prudent.

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