Libya presents test case for humanitarian intervention

In June 2000, Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire was found on a park bench in Ottawa after attempting to drink himself to death. Dallaire, who led the ill-fated UN-run assistance mission to Rwanda, was wracked with guilt after witnessing the international community’s impotence in responding to atrocities which ultimately resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 people. More than a decade later, another Canadian, Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, will lead NATO forces in Libya in an attempt to prevent precisely the kind of humanitarian tragedy which so aggrieved Lt. Gen. Dallaire. Although today’s intervention in Libya differs from the 1994 U.N. mission in Rwanda in many respects, the consequences of the Libyan intervention for international humanitarian policy will be similarly significant. A quick and relatively costless mission could encourage similar interventions in the future, while a drawn-out, expensive and bloody engagement could threaten the very legitimacy of humanitarian interventionism.

Modern humanitarian interventionism dates back at least as far as Woodrow Wilson, but it was formally enshrined in international law in the aftermath of World War II, with the Geneva Conventions, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention on Genocide. These documents were the first articulations of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which holds that that sovereign states have a responsibility to protect populations from acts of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, not only in their own countries but also in states which are unable or unwilling to do so. In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) released a report suggesting that sovereignty brings with it national and international responsibility. This report, like most R2P discourse since its release, focuses on the Rwandan genocide as a prime example of an atrocity which merited intervention. The ICISS helped to foster the idea that there was a moral imperative for the international community to intervene, militarily or otherwise, in states where a population was at risk.

The ICISS report prompted the United Nations to take action. A U.N. panel began to officially consider R2P in 2004 and a year later the organization decided unanimously to make the doctrine institutional policy. The recent crisis in Libya is perhaps its first test case. In response to Moammar Qadhafi’s threats to kill protesters “house by house,” the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, sanctioning international intervention to protect Libyan civilians. The resolution is a microcosm of the R2P debate; confirming the international communities’ desire to prevent humanitarian disasters while also displaying caution over violating state sovereignty.

As a rather textbook example of R2P, success or failure in Libya has far-reaching implications. If the Libyan operation is successful, it could pave the way for future interventions based on the doctrine. The current coalition demonstrates a new focus on multilateralism, with the major powers even obtaining approval from the Arab League for a no-fly zone. Future interventions with strong international consensus will likely become far more common, and humanitarian causes more favorable grounds for action, if the operation is successful. Success will suggest a more globalized and connected world, in which it will be difficult for a despotic regime to successfully maintain power indefinitely.

On the other hand, if the intervention fails and Qadhafi either remains in power or is ousted but Libya descends further into civil war and chaos, R2P could quickly fall out of favor. A failure to topple the regime would illuminate the shortcomings of the principle, such as competing notions of national sovereignty that have thus far prevented the coalition from declaring a mission of regime change in Libya. Some countries, particularly those in the West, take the view that if a government is willing to kill thousands of its own citizens, regime change is often the only viable option to ending a humanitarian crisis. This line of thinking is troubling to countries in the Middle East and Asia, highlighting the disputes surrounding R2P. While proponents of R2P can argue that the formation of the coalition and its willingness to take action is an important victory for international cooperation, failure of the Libyan intervention would lessen the likelihood of a similar coalition forming again.

In addition to repercussions for the policy itself, the success or failure of the Libyan intervention will impact the international outlook of individual countries as well. The United States, for example, would likely view success as a green light to take an elevated role protecting human rights and freedom around the world. The European Union would follow a similar track, seeking to bolster its role as a protector of human rights. Just as France took an early leadership role in this intervention because of historic connections to Libya, Africa would likely be a particular focus for the E.U., since most of the leading European countries have historical and cultural connections to the continent.

If the Libyan intervention is successful and R2P gains more prominence, China will likely grow more outspoken and active in its opposition to the policy, using its position on the Security Council to counteract the intentions of the U.S. and E.U. Furthermore, the Chinese have shown a willingness to open up economic relations with repressive regimes, such as in Sudan and Zimbabwe, that could potentially become targets of R2P advocates. If the Libyan intervention fails, both the E.U. and the U.S. would likely take a diminished role in regards to humanitarian intervention around the world. The two, but particularly the United States, would also lose military credibility and find power projection more difficult. The Chinese would welcome the failure of R2P; it would lessen Western influence in developing countries that have previously been be reluctant to deal with China and would allow China to continue to invest in countries with repressive regimes.

Libya is the first real test of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine since its formal adoption by the United Nations in 2005. The core question of how and when to violate the sovereignty of another country remains a major stumbling block to widespread adherence. The coalition response in Libya represents a probable tipping point for R2P. Success could cement the doctrine as standard policy for Western powers and the U.N. Security Council, while failure could well imperil it as a basis for future interventions. For the moment however, the NATO-led coalition is working to stop Qadhafi and atone for the international community’s failures in Rwanda.



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