Commentary  Security Council 

The Responsibility to Protect as a Call to Intervene: The Case Study of Libya and UN Resolution 1973

When the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 in response to the beginnings of the Libyan Civil War in early 2011, this became the first military implementation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which places the responsibility on the international community to protect civilians of a state unable or unwilling to offer such protection itself, said Maya Garner of The International United Nations Watch.

By Maya B. Garner

When the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 in response to the beginnings of the Libyan Civil War in early 2011, this became the first military implementation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which places the responsibility on the international community to protect civilians of a state unable or unwilling to offer such protection itself. However, the question arises of whether the NATO-led military intervention in Libya embodiment the principle of Responsibility to Protect, whether it was a violation of it. The broad allowance of international states to use “all means necessary” in order to ensure this call, transformed the Responsibility to Protect into a call to intervene.

The term “Responsibility to Protect” was first proposed in a 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). The report came as a result of the international debate sparked from the genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans wars in the 1990’s. The NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo was specifically criticized by the international community as violating UN guidelines prohibiting the use of force. The report outlines the responsibility of a governing power for protecting of its own population, highlighting not only protection against outside threats, but also maintenance of internal welfare. While these responsibilities rest primarily on the sovereign state, “residual responsibility” is placed on the international community states, coming into play whenever a state is “clearly either unwilling or unable to fulfil its responsibility to protect or is itself the actual perpetrator of crimes or atrocities.”

A High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change was created and issued a report in 2004, entitled “A more secure world: our shared responsibility” (A/59/565), which was followed up by a 2005 report by the Secretary General, “In larger freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all” (A/59/2005). The reports emphasized the shifting of responsibility to protect onto the international community, in the event that a state was unable or unwilling to protect its people. While the reports reiterated the uses of diplomatic and humanitarian methods of protection, there was no discussion of or demand for the use of force, even in the case of genocide and other international crimes, unless as a last resort authorized by the Security Council according to the UN Charter, Chapter VII: Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression. The General Assembly of September 2005 (A/RES/60/1) adopted the outcome of the UN World Summit Meeting with the commitment of Member States to the Responsibility to Protect, omitting some aspects of the original proposal by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001. The Member States affirmed their collective responsibility to protect populations against genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, and agreed to be “prepared to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner” in accordance with the UN Charter. Additionally, Member States agreed to the commitment “to helping States build capacity to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to assisting those which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.”

The passing of the UN Resolution 1973 in the year 2011 was the first military implementation of the Responsibility to Protect. Resolution 1973 gave the Security Council a broad authority to identify and put an end to “threats to peace” and “acts of aggression.” In response to the onset of the Libyan Civil War in February 2011 with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s forces violently suppressing protesters, the UN passed Resolution 1970, which condemned the use of lethal force by the government and imposed and arms embargo and a series of sanctions on the Libyan government, imposing travel bans on and freezing the assets of Gaddafi and his inner circle. UN Resolution 1973 was adopted in March 2011 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and demanded an “immediate ceasefire” and authorized a no-fly zone over Libya. The no-fly zone made exceptions to permit humanitarian aid, evacuation of foreign nationals or for purposes deemed to benefit the Libyan people. Furthermore, the Resolution approved “all means necessary” to ensure the protection of civilian, except from a “foreign occupation force” of the territory.

            In response, an international coalition led by NATO began a military intervention in Libya in order to implement the calls of UN Resolution 1973. The military operations began with the American and British navies launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, French forces launching airstrikes against Libyan army vehicles, and British and Canadian air forces deploying units and enforcing a naval blockade on Libya. The international coalition later expanded to 19 states. NATO took control of the arms embargo, and was later handed command over the no-fly zone. A NATO-led committee was to be in charge politically, while military action was solely in the hands of NATO. With the death of Gaddafi in October 2011, the NATO mission was terminated.

However, academic and political analyst Professor Noam Chomsky argued that the military intervention was an immediate violation of UN Resolution 1973. He stated that the resolution “called for a no-fly zone, a ceasefire, and the start of negotiations and diplomacy,” and yet NATO powers “became the air force of the rebels,“ which marked a sharp difference from the Resolution’s call to protect civilians with all means necessary. The no-fly zone in this respect became a militarized fly zone. The call for a ceasefire was simultaneously undermined with the deployment of international military forces, and the legitimacy of Gaddafi’s acceptance of the ceasefire had little time to be reviewed before international military intervened. The interpretation of the Responsibility to Protect as being a call for specific military intervention effectively ruled out alternative responses, allowing for no possibility of negotiations. The term “all means necessary” save for military occupation was purposefully vague, yet may have overridden the intentions behind the Resolution, the protection of civilians, and instead given way to militant and political objectives. The NATO intervention was not terminated until the death of Gaddafi. Possibly, the killing of and removal of Gaddafi from power became the primary objective, eliminating the possibility of protecting civilians without his removal. The Responsibility to Protect emphasizes a residual responsibility of international states whenever a governing power is unable or unwilling to protect its own people, yet the Responsibility to Protect should fall primarily on the state in question. In the case of Libya, the military intervention eliminated the possibility of reinstating peace at an earlier stage with Gaddafi remaining in power, and instead continued with the intervention based the goal of removing Gaddafi, overriding all other options. When a government fails to uphold the Responsibility to Protect and commits crimes against its own people, this Responsibility is transformed into a call to not only intervene, but entirely remove the governing powers.