If not now, when? The responsibility to protect Libyans – who?

Prominent neo-conservatives associated with the G.W.Bush administration have written to President Obama calling for a US-led Nato to develop plans to command Libyan waters and air space. Will this protect the Libyan people?
Tim Dunne
2 March 2011

‘Time after time we have seen one regime after another fail in their most fundamental responsibility to protect their civilian populations’, said Kevin Rudd in his speech to the Human Rights Council. The Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs urged fellow government leaders to listen to the Libyan peoples’ ‘cry for freedom’ and stand firm against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

The setting for the Council meeting was Geneva, where the League of Nations crumbled in the 1930s, as member states realized they lacked the capacity and the will to implement the collective security doctrine embodied in the League Covenant. That decade, Japan, Italy and Germany all breached international rules with virtual impunity, until Britain and its allies declared that enough was enough and took up arms against fascism.

Despite the failure of the League of Nations, the victorious powers after 1945 put in place a successor institution whose purpose was to maintain international peace and security. The Charter of the United Nations opens with the bold statement that ‘we the peoples’ resolve to end the scourge of war and affirm the ‘fundamental human rights’ of all.

This revolution in moral sensibility has not been matched by an enhanced capacity to respond effectively when human rights are being grossly violated. The problem, simply stated, was that the ‘international community’ was constituted by governments who were entitled to claim non-interference in their domestic jurisdiction. Yet it was governments who committed the worst crimes against humanity in the post 1945 era, with the genocides in Cambodia (1975), Rwanda (1994), being the most egregious examples.

Such a gap between commitment and capability was recognized by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who demanded at the turn of the millennium that the international community come up with a resolution to the problem. In Annan’s words, ‘If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, a Srebrenica… that offend every precept of our common humanity?’

Within a matter of five years, the UN had gone a long way to develop a set of norms that sought to protect human beings and not the governments that abused them.  The doctrine ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) was agreed by all heads of government in 2005. It commits the community of states to respond to atrocity crimes in a decisive manner, including the use of force where prudent.

In light of this doctrine, that Australia has played a key role in developing and advocating, how should the international community respond in order to make sure Benghazi and Zawiyah do not become today’s Srebrenica and Kigali - places that the world stood and watched as atrocity crimes were being committed?

Initial signs of concerted action are hopeful. The UN Security Council resolution of 26 Feb called for ‘decisive action’ and ‘tough measures’ against the Gaddafi regime. R2P was invoked, for the first time in a Security Council resolution against a specific country. This is already being seen by R2P advocates as a pivotal sign of the norm’s growing acceptance as an appropriate guide to international action.

It is important to stress that the circumstances that triggered the Security Council’s deliberation are unusual. First, the Libyan ambassador to the UN denounced the Gaddafi regime, leaving it without a single ally. Second, the measures adopted – travel bans, freezing assets, criminal court investigations – are robust but will not do anything to prevent further atrocities if the army and security forces remain loyal.

The clamour to step up the international action against the pro-Gaddafi forces reaches beyond the UN building in New York and the think tanks on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. Leaders of western governments are contemplating tough action, including a no-fly zone and securing a humanitarian corridor to ease the passage of refugees.

Unless Gaddafi goes quickly, it is likely that the international community will take tougher action against his regime. But will this be done at the behest of the Security Council? Veto-wielding powers such as Russia and China have intimated they would oppose a resolution permitting force to be used. If they do not shift ground, an alternative possibility is that action could be taken by NATO.

This would appeal to many advocates of intervention in the United States. A strongly worded letter to the American President, calling for decisive action, has been posted on the Foreign Policy Initiative website. It was signed by 40 policy analysts, and included prominent neo-conservatives associated with the George W. Bush administration, including Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy-defence secretary under Bush.

The letter demands that the United States and NATO allies develop operational plans to command Libyan waters and air space. Consistent with the position that the neo-conservatives adopted in relation to Iraq, there is no mention of the need to establish a wider consensus behind this action.

For neo-cons, as well as some internationalists who support the Obama administration, the United Nations is too weak and divided to take effective action. They would rather see it replaced by some kind of league of democratic states which has both the power and, in their eyes, the moral authority to taken international action.

The problem with actions outside the UN Security Council is that they are in breach of a rules-based international order; and as Rudd put it in his speech, states such as Australia who aspire to be ‘good international citizens’ must ‘build, sustain, and enhance’ global and regional rules.

It is the last part of this quotation that provides an intriguing possibility for coercive action against the Gaddafi regime should the UN Security Council fail to authorize such action. NATO forces took action against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999. While air power would not be prudent in the case of Libya, the process whereby western states sought legitimacy for their actions outside the Security Council could become an important precedent in the coming weeks.

Back in 2000, former South African President Nelson Mandela criticized the Kosovo intervention not on the grounds that NATO powers had circumvented the Security Council, but because they had failed to act when Africans had been slaughtered.

Should Gaddafi and his army fight to consolidate their power, it is hoped that the Security Council authorizes all necessary coercive measures that are likely to succeed and that meet the test of proportionality. The Australian government is right to continue to pressure diplomats in New York and world leaders to ensure they live up to their promise to protect civilians from atrocity crimes. Mandela should be given an answer to his question about double standards.

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