The principle of Responsibility to Protect in retrospect

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as applied in Libya promoted regime change and western interests. Resistance to a proposed intervention in Syria shows emerging powers and public opinion will not accept an ends justify the means logic, and the US ‘exceptionalism’ that is said to justify it. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, R2P and the Human Rights Crisis in Syria.

David Maimela
28 October 2013

The military invasion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Libya in 2011 brought the spotlight on international law and multilateralism sharply into focus. The intervention was done under the pretext of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973 which sought to ‘protect civilians’ from an imminent massacre by the government of Muammar Gaddafi.

For the first time since its insertion into the international law regime by the United Nations World Summit of the General Assembly in 2005, the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was tested in the theatre of real life. Before Libya, no other experience so aptly illustrates the extreme application of the principle which ultimately led to regime change, loss of more life and the destruction of Libyan economic infrastructure, the cost of which amounts to billions of US dollars.

In summary, as Ruben Reike explains, the principle of R2P consists of three elements or humanitarian and security considerations. "First, States accepted the responsibility to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Second, States promised to assist each other in fulfilling their domestic protection responsibilities. And third, the international community took on a collective responsibility to react, in a timely and decisive manner, if particular States are manifestly failing to protect their populations from the abovementioned mass atrocity crimes."

In order to understand the principle, we need to move from the abstract to the concrete and, in this regard, the Libyan experience is a useful example. At face value, the R2P principle is a noble one as it reinforces Chapter VII, Article 41 and 42 of the UN Charter. The principle, combined with these Articles, makes it possible in the post-Second World War world to see state sovereignty as not absolute, but relative. Yet Security Council Resolution 1973, that served as a legal basis for NATO’s military invasion, was riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, the resolution authorised a ‘no-fly-zone’ and yet promised the ‘protection of civilians’. It is unclear to the author as to how this is achieved in real war situations. Secondly, the resolution directed that intervention in Libya could "take all necessary measures" to protect civilians, whereas at the same time it "excluded a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of the Libyan territory." These are very obvious and self-evident contradictions.

The western media in particular was complicit in aiding the Libyan invasion. At the time, just before the invasion, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen gave an unequivocal press conference response to a journalist who posed the question: “Do you see any evidence that he (Gaddafi) has fired on his own people from the air? There were reports of it, but do you have independent confirmation? If so, to what extent?”. Secretary Gates responded: “We have seen the press reports but we have no confirmation of that,” and Admiral Mullen added, “That’s correct. We have seen no confirmation whatsoever.” In the end, it became apparent that the so-called ‘genocide’ was used as a justification to pursue what was in essence regime change, aimed at satisfying the west’s imperialist appetite for security of an oil supply.

The same disinformation tactic that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq was used in the case of Libya, also for the very same ends: regime change and access to reconstruction contracts, oil and the propping up of a client state.

This brings us to the Syrian situation. Both the real democratic international community, and power brokers such as Russia and China, responded progressively to the global peace protest movement (including ordinary Americans) that rejected Libyan-Iraqi-style military invasion in Syria. This time around, the blockade was on four fronts: social agency from below in almost all regions of the world; the promise of Chinese and Russian vetoes in the UNSC, a promised speedy and effective UN chemical weapons inspection, and Russia’s diplomatic intervention in securing Syria’s chemical arsenal, a process that goes parallel with preparations for peace talks at Geneva-2, hopefully in November 2013.

At the beginning of the 21st century, one of the changes taking place in the world is the economic transformations of Asia, Africa, and the global South more broadly. Evidently, as these changes take place, geopolitics is redefined, a consequence of which is the restructuring of global economic power relations within and among nations. The decline of US hegemony as a superpower in the post-Cold War period and the re-emergence of China, India and other emerging powers in the global South is partly responsible for the tension that is happening and which is felt across the world. The realignment of economic and therefore political power on a global scale will not happen without struggle between the traditional hegemons and the emerging powers. Indeed, the United States will continue to extend itself in the world to hold onto its position as the leading nation of the ‘New World Order’.

Unfortunately, the continued extension of the United States will come at a cost both in the international and domestic fronts. Already the global recession and the ever increasing US$17 trillion debt is creating a lot of tension between domestic and foreign policy priorities in the US. Persistent wars since 1945 have led to war fatigue in the United States.

In the rest of the world, the so-called ‘American exceptionalism’ has proven to be a concept of negativity, destruction, dehumanisation and imperialism. The overbearing image of ‘American exceptionalism’ is a negative one, one that repels; one that creates and recreates ‘anti-American sentiment’. Indeed in recent years, since the launch of the War on Terror, American foreign policy has gone into high gear to militarise diplomacy and multilateralism and the consequences are clear to everyone: more instability, terrorism and destruction of human life and infrastructure.

The death toll in Syria is said to exceed 100 000 people. Even one life taken is one too many. The principle of the rule of law is firmly established in democratic norms and international law. Those responsible for perpetrating crimes against humanity in Syria must be held accountable in a clear and independent judicial process. However, this cannot be done by ‘whatever means necessary’ and thereby sending the crude message that the ‘ends justify the means’. That kind of approach is backwards and represents a repugnant value system which is at the core of Western militarism. We cannot afford to continue to see the world and its problems through the eyes of the United States and the West. The irony of it all is that those who prefer military solutions to political problems are prepared to break every democratic rule in the book, and yet boldly shout: we are the beacon of hope, we are the bearer of democratic standard, we are exceptional.

What is to be done?

The preamble of the United Nations Charter declares:

“We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm dignity and worth…of nations large and small…” And for these ends “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours…to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed forces shall not be used, save in the common interest…”.

"Common interest" does not mean western or multinational corporations’ interests. "Common interest" refers to the expansion of human freedom for all, the restoration of human dignity for all, freedom from want, disease and war: in a word, social justice for all.

UN Secretary General Ba Ki Moon recently said: “Hammarskjöld [former UN Secretary-General] lived by his belief that the United Nations should be a servant of the smaller, less powerful States – not a tool of the great powers. 'The Organization' he said, 'is first of all their Organization, and I deeply believe in the wisdom with which they will be able to use it and guide it'."

The point is that if multilateralism as a principle and institution is undermined and violated, as has been done by most ‘great powers’ since 1945, then future generations will have no worthy space, heritage and life to inherit. After multilateralism, what else do we have left?

In the end therefore, the ongoing Syrian crisis has proven to even the worst skeptics that there are alternative ways to achieve the ends of the R2P other than further militarization of the Middle East, already the most volatile region in the world. Of course, this alternative political and diplomatic solution should have come sooner.

The task to restore human dignity on a global scale will be difficult but achievable. It is a task that progressives must pursue relentlessly on all fronts. Progressive transformation of global reality will not be out of benevolence. It will happen if we allow the emergence of countervailing forces that will balance arbitrary power and rogue statecraft. And this is already happening in terms of economic changes and the qualitative rise of the voice of the global South in multilateral platforms. This symbiotic relationship between true democratization and economic development from alternative regions such as Asia, Africa and Latin America is an opportunity for all of us to build a better world. Even if it is so, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance!


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