Libya and the Responsiblity to Protect
In recent weeks, the contagion of revolution is spreading through northern Africa and the Middle-East. The events in Egypt demonstrated that political upheaval can be more-or-less peaceful, and that a government can take a hint without resorting to all-out violence against the people it governs and is supposed to protect.
More recent events in Bahrain, and in particular, Libya, have demonstrated a different response by government. Ghadafi is a different breed of leader altogether. As protestors positioned themselves ever closer to the capital of Tripoli, the level of violence escalated. The number of dead has been difficult to calculate, but estimates are over a thousand.
What was days ago a murmur of support for intervention in Libya is developing into a real conversation. The Human Rights Council has condemned Ghadafi’s actions and would like to suspend Libya’s involvement. The Security Council is meeting to discuss options. Joe Biden has gone as far as to state that when a state commits atrocities against its own people, it surrenders its sovereignty. But what has failed to be explicitly mentioned in any serious manner, is the Responsibility to Protect.
In the late nineties there was a broad consensus that tyrants should not be allowed to murder their own people. It came to a head in Kosovo where there was military action to stop President Milosevic of Serbia from willfully exterminating or exiling hundreds of thousands of Kosovars. Canada participated in that action because at the time Human Security was considered bedrock of our foreign policy. The protection of civilians from excessive force was seen as a universal value.
After that experience we established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) to come up with a set of prescriptions that would form the base of international law against those who used their positions of sovereign power to commit crimes against humanity that included rulers killing their own subjects. The end result was the principle of Responsibility to Protect. It set out that when innocent civilians were being put to risk then the government of the particular state must protect them otherwise it became a task for the International Community. RtoP, as it became known, was adopted by world leaders at an UN summit in 2005 as part of a reform package. It has been used to warrant UN action against the killings in Darfur.
So my question is why is this important protocol of the UN being ignored in the case of the madness of Ghadafi in the wanton killing of his own people, and all the other actuators who see their power being challenged by the people and use force to undermine the strong tide of democracy now surging in the Middle East. If the violent targeting of innocent peoples does not constitute a crime against humanity, what does?
There are some obvious answers. One is spelled O-I-L. But another is that we have lost our capacity for outrage and prefer to play by the constricted rules of real politik.
So maybe it is time for our own populations to remind those who govern us that there are principles in play, endorsed by a recent generation, and that it could be important in the saving of lives of those who are challenging autocratic rulers. It might be time to once again raise the call for international action as prescribed under RtoP. The Secretary-General should go so far as canvassing to see what form of intervention would be supported by various states, and at the bare minimum air power could be use to prevent incursions against the brave protesters of the eastern part of the country. In other words it’s time for more than hortatory talk but real action.
Meanwhile, Libya’s interior minister, its deputy ambassador to the United Nations and its representative to the Arab League have resigned in protest and by all accounts, it appears as though his time as ruler has reached its expiration date. Understanding this reality, the responsibility falls on the international community to not only prevent further violence, but clearly make the case that RtoP gives full justification for abrading the false sovereignty of Col. Ghadafi.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.