Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Libya and the Essential Irrelevance of the Responsibility to Protect

Humanitarian intervention” briefly topped the international political agenda following the interventions in Kosovo and East Timor in 1999. It was soon eclipsed, however, by the War on Terror. Later, the lamentable international response to the slaughter in Darfur appeared to prove that “liberal interventionism” had lost all momentum. Current events in Libya, however, have reignited this debate as evidenced by a number of recent articles in The Guardian (Seumas Milne, March 2nd, Timothy Garton-Ash, March 3rd).

The emotive division evident amongst these commentators is perhaps to be expected and indeed welcomed. Less tolerable, however, is the spectacle of rancour and discord at the UN Security Council given that the emergence of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) ostensibly constituted a solution to the perennial problem posed by intra-state crises.

While humanitarian intervention may have lost its currency, R2P has made a remarkable ascent, becoming an established part of the international political lexicon. In 2001 the Independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty published its seminal report The Responsibility to Protect which suggested that states have a responsibility to protect their people and if they fail this responsibility should transfer to the international community. R2P was endorsed by all the world’s states at the 2005 World Summit and a subsequent debate in the General Assembly in 2009 evidenced a broad commitment to the idea. These developments were lauded by many NGO’s, academics and prominent world leaders including the UN Secretary General. Events in Libya, however, illustrate the essential irrelevance of R2P. Sadly what most influences the international response to internal atrocities is the same today as ever; power and national interests.

Following the 2005 World Summit the then UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stated, ‘If this new responsibility had been in place a decade ago, thousands in Srebrenica and Rwanda would have been saved’. The obvious implication of his statement was that R2P had increased the scope of options available to the international community and that domestic atrocities would no longer be ignored. Evidence since 2005 to support his claim is, however, lacking as particularly manifest in the international response to the violence in Darfur. The Sudanese government clearly had no qualms about declaring its commitment to protecting its citizens and simultaneously slaughtering them but likewise, the international community failed to match its words with deeds as the Sudanese government implemented what the UN described as “a reign of terror” killing nearly half a million people and displacing over two and a half million more. Despite the emergence of R2P, states particularly the permanent five members of the Security Council (P5) still treat intra-state atrocities with the same circumspection as ever and are ultimately guided by the question “do we have national interests at stake?”.

It is abundantly clear that Gaddafi has not felt duty bound to honour his country’s endorsement of R2P. But is anyone surprised? States have regularly supported international human rights legislation safe in the knowledge that without consistent and effective enforcement mechanisms these commitments could be broken with impunity. Indeed, many notorious human rights violators, such as Sudan, Iran, North Korea and Myanmar, have been vociferous and eloquent supporters of R2P. Gaddafi’s actions provide yet more evidence, if it was required, that states cannot be held in check by moral pressure arising from their rhetorical commitments.

Of course, the fact that R2P comprises an international dimension is an acknowledgement that states will not always protect their citizens. Yet, in the ongoing international response to Libya there is scant evidence that any of the key actors have been influenced by their previous commitment to R2P. International law has not been altered by R2P in any way and it is, ultimately, merely a political commitment. The only body which can legally enforce the proscriptions against genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the form of military intervention or less intrusive action remains the Security Council, which is dominated by the veto-wielding P5. R2P has not altered the decision making process and is, ultimately, predicated on the naive and manifestly baseless assumption that the response of the P5 will be influenced by their commitment to R2P.

On the 22 February the Security Council released a statement in which they ...called on the Government of Libya to meet its responsibility to protect its population’. Four days later the Council passed resolution 1970 which imposed a travel ban, asset freezes and an arms embargo as well as referring the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC).  These are, however, largely symbolic steps and as the UN Secretary General noted, ‘...cannot end the violence and the repression’. The Council could have taken the same action twenty years ago (albeit without the referral to the ICC) and there is no evidence that R2P has altered either the response or the decision-making dynamics.

Ultimately, the manner in which the international community has responded to the crisis in Libya is the same today as it would have been without the emergence of R2P. For all the furore surrounding the concept R2P has not changed the fundamental dynamics governing the international response to intra-state crises. The Security Council is inherently reluctant to sanction robust military action – perhaps wisely – and is deeply divided because the P5 have different political considerations. The division which has characterised the Security Councils response to events in Libya is illustrative of the primary cause of the litany of international inaction in the face of mass atrocities within states; the power of the P5 and the influence of their respective national interests on the Councils collective response.

R2P is merely a political commitment which can be ignored both by states perpetrating crimes and the international community observing these atrocities. The fact that states and international institutions routinely use the phrase “R2P” is not in itself of any real significance unless it is a direct catalyst for action which previously could not, or would not have been taken. The term is, in effect, a slogan just like “Never again!” issued with such earnestness after the Holocaust...and every mass atrocity since.

Dr Aidan Hehir
Department of Politics and International Relations,
University of Westminster

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