Libya and the Responsibility to Protect

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a new international human rights standard aimed at preventing and stopping genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity (collectively known as “mass atrocities”).  The standard was adopted at the United Nations World Reform Summit in 2005.  There are three principles underlying R2P:

  1. That states have the primary obligation to protect their populations from mass atrocities
  2. The international community should encourage and help states to exercise this obligation
  3. The international community has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations.  If a state fails in its responsibility to protect its population, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council.

In early 2011, the government of Libya allegedly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in response to peaceful civilian protests.  Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s political leader, called on his supporters to attack the protesters and “cleanse Libya house by house.”  Beginning in mid-February, the international community started adopting a range of peaceful and coercive measures in response to Gaddafi’s growing threats against the people of Libya.  These measures included asset freezes, travel bans, arms embargos and a referral to the International Criminal Court.  Within weeks, Gaddafi expressed a clear intent to continue committing massive human rights violations by announcing through the media that his forces would show “no mercy” to rebels and would search every house that night.  His comments indicated an imminent intention to massacre the city’s population.

On March 17th the UN Security Council put the R2P principle into action, declaring a no-fly zone and ceasefire in Resolution 1973.  This was the first time that the Security Council had ever authorized military action against a non-cooperative state in order to protect the population, explicitly applying the R2P doctrine.

Critics of the UN Security Council’s intervention in Libya question why R2P-based military action was taken in Libya, but not in other countries where there are also conflicts that threaten the civilian population, such as Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Syria or Yemen.   The international community is working to ensure that appropriate measures under R2P are taken when warranted, so that the R2P doctrine is not abused by countries claiming to protect a population while actually seeking political gain.