The military attack on Libya in 2011 has rightly been interpreted as a significant milestone in the life of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. It is the first UN military mission explicitly justified as a reaction to a government’s failure to live up its responsibility to protect its citizens. R2P activists have celebrated that it enacts the principle of ‘responsibility’ and they argue that it will make future enforcement against mass killing easier. R2P skeptics have responded that civilian protection may have been a mask for great power self-interest or they argue against reading the case as setting a precedent for militarized civilian protection.
The productive effect of the Libyan case is front-and-center in discussions of R2P today. Jennifer Welsh recently argued that the Libyan intervention may have tied R2P more closely to the UN Security Council than was previously the case (Ethics and Int’l Affairs 2011). By enacting R2P through a forceful and explicit resolution, the Council may have helped institutionalize its control over the principle.
A second dimension should also be recognized: only half of R2P was invoked by the Council with respect to Libya, and so the episode may reinforce a truncated version of the doctrine, one that rewrites the rules of sovereignty in favor of Great Powers rather than of human rights.
The Council resolutions on Libya made explicit reference to Libya’s responsibility to protect its citizens, but it made no mention of any responsibility on the rest of the world to come to the aid of those citizens. The conceptual formulation of R2P has always entailed both of these obligations, as complements to each other, and together they form a coherent whole that is said to improve the human security of individuals. Resolutions 1970 and 1973 therefore enacted exactly one half of the responsibility to protect — the half that places obligations on ‘target’ states.
The legal framing of the Libyan intervention in those resolutions rested on the Libyan government’s failure to protect its people, but not on an obligation of other states to provide help. The first half made international intervention permissible – but without the second half, it was not an obligation on the rest of the world.
This may not matter if one looks at the actions that followed the resolutions, where significant investment was made by NATO states to remove the Gaddafi regime from its predatory position over the Libyan people and economy. In that sense, the Council performed the responsibility to protect, and it seems likely that in doing so it prevented worse harms.
But if we take the view that international norms become real when they are invoked and put to use in practice, then the absence of the second half of R2P in the Council’s resolutions is an important fact for what R2P means into the future. It invests in a revised version of R2P.
For better or worse, the Libyan episode enacts the version of the responsibility to protect that is most sympathetic to the Great Powers, especially the US, China, and Russia. In this version, a humanitarian disaster creates a condition where the target state may have lost its right of non-intervention, but it leaves the question of whether and how to respond to the decision of the Security Council. It removes some of the sovereignty previously enjoyed by the target state, but does nothing to bind the Great Powers to an obligation to rescue those in danger.
The legacy of the Libyan intervention may be to reinforce the view that R2P is an instrument of the ‘imperial Security Council’ — under which the Council’s Great Powers decide together on the fates of others. This, of course, was the original intent for the UN Security Council after World War II, but various tensions (including Great-Power disagremeents and the demand for participation from smaller states) have largely kept the Council from using the full powers it was given in 1945. In the permissive version of R2P, the Council may have found a way to legitimate some of its dormant coercive authority.
It is ironic that in the very first instance in which the principle was put into practice, the version of R2P that was enacted was one that would undoubtedly have been rejected by the majority of states and activists who crafted the doctrine. What came out of the ICISS process was an idea that would bind those governments in a position to rescue people as much as it disempowered those governments who were threatening people. The Council’s version of R2P does the disempowering but not the binding.
If the Libyan episode does indeed come to constitute the meaning of R2P for the future, it may make it solely a permissive condition for further Great Power intervention, and the transformative ambition to rewrite sovereignty in the direction of human security and basic rights may be greatly diminished.