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Reflections on Libya and atrocity prevention

By Jared Genser


With the recent end of the NATO mission in Libya, it is an opportune moment to reflect on what took place and what it may mean for global efforts to prevent mass atrocities. Protests demanding an end to Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year reign began on February 14th and spread across the country. The Libyan government immediately dispatched the army to crush the unrest. In a speech a week later, Gaddafi said he would rather die a martyr than to step down, and called on his supporters to attack and “cleanse Libya house by house” until protestors surrender. Some six months later, Gaddafi’s response to the contagion from the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt triggered a series of measures being imposed by the UN Security Council, including what became a NATO-sponsored “no-fly” zone. These measures ultimately resulted in Gaddafi’s ousting from power.

The overarching justification for the international intervention was the “responsibility to protect” (RtoP), a still-evolving doctrine which says all states have an obligation to prevent mass atrocities, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. In the wake of the Libya action, however, a fierce debate has raged over whether its use in this case will help or hurt this approach from being used to help future victims of mass atrocities.

Since its adoption, the doctrine has most notably applied in the case of Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007-2008 and as justification for lesser action in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kyrgyzstan, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire. Its application in Libya, however, was only the second time it has been explicitly invoked by the Security Council regarding the situation in a specific country.

In response to Gaddafi’s unyielding assaults on civilians in Libya, the Security Council adopted a unanimous resolution which imposed an arms embargo on Libya, targeted financial sanctions and travel bans against Gaddafi, his family members, and senior regime officials, and referred the situation to the International Criminal Court for investigation of those involved in what was referred to as possible crimes against humanity. In the subsequent six weeks, while the international community debated how to proceed, Gaddafi moved relentlessly moved to quell the uprising, reportedly killing thousands of unarmed civilians.

With the urgency created by Gaddafi’s threats, the presence of his troops just outside Benghazi and a critical public statement by the Arab League urging the immediate imposition of a no-fly zone on Libya, the Security Council adopted a new resolution. Among other actions, it authorized UN member states to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, created a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace, and urged enforcement of an arms embargo and asset freeze on Libyan government as well as on key officials and their families.

It was these efforts, after substantial success and failure, which ultimately resulted in the overthrow of Gaddafi many months later. It is in that context there have been a range of perspectives regarding the Libyan intervention which will ultimately shape its legacy.

First, there is a concern that in the name of civilian protection, RtoP was used to justify a regime-change agenda, which was never the purpose of the doctrine. Second, there has been a global focus on the “sharp end” of RtoP being deployed in Libya. This broader agenda of atrocity prevention can easily be lost when an exception of military intervention, at one extreme of a possible response, swallows the entire doctrine, which is much more comprehensive. And third, there is a concern that the Libyan intervention will make future interventions much more difficult as has been part of the assessment as to why the Security Council has been unwilling to intervene in Syria. Indeed, the Russian and Chinese Permanent Representatives to the United Nations explicitly invoked concerns about “another Libya” in double-vetoing a mild and non-binding resolution on the situation in Syria on October 5th.

The Security Council and NATO intervention in Libya will have a profound effect on both the situation in that country and the evolution of RtoP. Nevertheless, the international community cannot let criticisms of the intervention in Libya dissuade it from continuing to press for the doctrine’s application. Until recently, mass atrocities directed at civilian populations were met with silence and inaction. The mere fact the Security Council didn’t question the right of the international community to intervene in Libya, but rather it debated the nature of the size and scope of the intervention is a critically-important milestone in the doctrine’s development. It should be viewed as unremarkable, however, that the intersection between this aspirational doctrine and the real world is going to be messy and imperfect in practice.

It is important to recall that RtoP was never intended to be a rigid and formulaic approach to preventing and responding to mass atrocities. On the contrary, it was designed to be flexible and to be able to be applied differently in different situations, with the use of force as an absolute last resort.

While there remains a gap between the unanimous stated commitment of the UN World Summit in 2005 and the willingness of Member States to act to prevent mass atrocities, that gap is narrowing. The global commitment to preventing mass atrocities is not only intact, but growing. And as has always been the case, the challenge will be to transform this commitment into reality.

Jared Genser is a human-rights lawyer in Washington, D.C. He is co-editor of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Time.

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