In 2011, popular uprisings against repressive leaders were sweeping the Arab world. In Libya, then-President Moammar Gaddafi responded to challenges of his rule quickly and brutally — by attacking protesters and targeting citizens, threatening to “cleanse Libya house by house.” The United Nations sprang into action: Its Security Council authorized military intervention and a NATO-led force carried out airstrikes that ousted Gaddafi from power. The effects of this intervention are still being felt throughout the Middle East, but today even more crises are at hand.
In Burundi, a country seemingly on the brink of civil war, watchdog organizations have found evidence of mass graves and extrajudicial killings. In Nigeria, Boko Haram extremists have killed about 20,000 people (recently firebombing refugees and children), with the government seemingly unable to stand against them. Even though a “cessation of hostilities” has been planned in Syria, conflict is very much ongoing and tens of thousands of civilians have died.
Why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere?
Libya has been the only military application of the Responsibility to Protect, a relatively new international norm endorsed by all of the U.N. member states in 2005. R2P, as it is known, is an attempt to prevent mass atrocities — genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — from occurring in a time when large, structured interstate wars have been replaced by violent internal conflicts in which the casualties are mainly civilian. The international standard for intervention emerged after the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, when the international community largely stood by as disaster occurred, seemingly due to limited peacekeeping mandates meant to preserve neutrality and state sovereignty.
R2P rests on three pillars, each demanding a separate level of responsibility. First, governments carry the primary responsibility for protecting their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and their incitement. Second, the international community has the responsibility to encourage and assist these governments in fulfilling that responsibility. Third — where the principle can become a source of conflict — the international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from such crimes. If a government is “manifestly failing” to protect its populations, the international community should be prepared to take collective action, including military action, in accordance with the U.N. Charter.
These norms are a fairly recent shift from the idea of “humanitarian intervention,” which Global South countries, still smarting from the wounds of colonialism, called an encroachment on their hard-won state sovereignty and a Trojan horse for great powers to pursue their own interests. R2P is an affirmation of self-determination with intervention as an agreed-upon and well-constrained last resort. Although it outlines grounds for military intrusion, R2P is meant to respect and encourage the role that states can and should play in resolving their own internal conflicts.
Today, the doctrine is still universally affirmed, but its efficacy and application are questioned. Although the R2P framework has been the basis for both successful and disappointing action in the past, critics claim that it has not been able to provide an adequate response in crises that are currently occurring.
Indeed, recent events pose a number of questions: Why does intervention happen in some countries and not others, or at a certain level of disorder and not before? When we do intervene, are our responses effective? Is a system predicated on the notion of international cooperation realistic, considering the geopolitical challenges of respecting sovereignty while also generating consensus among world players? How does the responsibility to protect hold up today?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from: