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The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Action

The Responsibility to Protect, commonly referred to as R2P, has been used and abused several times throughout history since its unanimous adoption in the 2005 World Summit by United Nations heads of state. Created as a response to humanitarian failures such as the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, this 108-paged guideline attempted to prevent further tragedies by espousing the then revolutionary doctrine of humanitarian intervention based on an international “responsibility to protect” as opposed to the faulty political notion of the “right to intervene”. This global commitment to R2P replaced traditionally state-centered motivations for humanitarian intervention with more altruistic ones: a responsibility to protect populations suffering from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. 

Nevertheless, Russia’s abuse of R2P as an excuse for their military intervention in Georgia in 2008, along with R2P’s failures in practice in the ongoing Syrian Civil War and Yemeni armed conflicts have raised legitimate questions about the plan’s efficacy and practicality in the international landscape. Thus, it’s important to address the above criticisms by analyzing the degree to which R2P’s implementations have been successful in recent conflicts. For example, was the UN-backed decision for NATO intervention in the 2011 Libyan Civil War justified? Has R2P really led to notable victories in the humanitarian landscape? Finally, are there ways in which R2P could evolve in the future in an attempt to become more practical in diplomatic and peacekeeping practices? 

One of the most recent conflicts which triggered R2P’s implementation was the first Libyan Civil War, also referred to as the Libyan Revolution, which began in February 2011 and continued until October of the same year. The conflict initially erupted as protests against widespread corruption, committed by then-Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s government, and unemployment that was rampant in eastern Libya. However, the magnitude of the rebellions quickly grew to anti-Gaddafi forces establishing a governing body named the National Transitional Council.  Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s government responded with violent backlashes to protests‒ specifically through rape and imprisonment of thousands of civilians.  Deploring what it saw as the gross and systemic violation of human rights in Libya and recalling the similarity of the situation with that of Rwanda in 1994, the UN Security Council responded to the crisis by authorizing the NATO-led military intervention of Libya on the principles laid out by R2P. The UN decision allowed NATO states to take “all necessary measures” to protect the life of civilians at risk by Gaddafi’s government. 

Libyan Civil War - Washington Post

Libyan Civil War – Washington Post

Libya was the first case where R2P was explicitly incited in a case of military intervention.  After being used merely as a political term for 6 years, the R2P  finally started to be translated from “words into deeds”, an endeavour which then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described as his ultimate goal during his term in office.  Indeed, one of the clear successes of R2P implementation in the Libyan crisis was that the words provided a strict vision for UN officials ‒ specifically, they initially helped NATO naval forces focus on saving civilian lives instead of taking sides in the political conflicts of another nation, in fear of infringing upon their national sovereignty and dispelling the principles of R2P altogether. R2P also helped in the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya, which, according to the head of the Libyan army strategist Mustafa Abdul Jalil, helped prevent the death of “more than half a million civilians”

However, the initial success of R2P in Libya was replaced by more aggressive military strategies being adopted on the side of NATO later on into the conflict. The increased amount of artillery shelling on Libyan cities, along with more aggressive military tactics, caused R2P to manifest itself more so into a tactic utilized by NATO states for regime-change in Libya ‒which thereby infringed upon Libyan sovereignty‒ rather than a sole commitment by the international community to save human lives. This controversial progress of the military intervention in Libya has been the reason why this case has come under close scrutiny by analysts and why this intervention has been considered a failure of substituting the principle of a “responsibility to protect” for “right to intervene”.

Looking at numerical data on human casualties in Libya before and after the implementation of R2P is only so useful. By the end of the first Libyan Civil War, reports indicated all fatalities due to the political conflict to be approximately 6109, most of which were estimated to have occurred after NATO intervention. Even though this imbalance may give the impression that the intervention was justified on the principle that it helped decrease the number of casualties, it’s important to note the invariable bias in such statistics. 

In the case of Libya, the Gaddafi government had already been cracking down on civilians at a rapid rate, either by armed militia fighters killing children and terrorizing the population or Gaddafi’s soldiers assaulting refugee women. Thus, the casualties already started at a high point at this point in the conflict. Furthermore, the casualty numbers pre and post-NATO intervention will be skewed due to the Gaddafi government’s tight restriction over hospital records. Thus, it may be impossible to formulate a fair conclusion based solely on the statistics of this conflict, and the same notion can be applied to the analysis of any cases of R2P implementation. In every case, there will be the conspicuous, short-term harm in implementing R2P ‒even when it may be morally right in the long run‒ because of the intangibility of the plan, and there will be the issue of the intervening state expanding to fulfil its own imperialist aims, as many historians considered to be the case between US and Iraq. Many policy analysts regard R2P as “just another excuse for the major powers to throw their weight around” when this is not true in every case. 

Gaddafi Government - Wall Street Journal

Gaddafi Government – Wall Street Journal

One of the other issues with R2P’s implementation is this: the commitment. While being altruistic in its aims, this remains ambiguous and dogged by “what if” questions. When R2P is successful, as it was initially in 2011 Libya, there will not be any clear evidence of its success: a mass atrocity that did not occur, but would have occurred without military intervention. The cost of R2P when it is successful, however, will continue to be painfully evident in the form of military expenditures and casualties and all the unintended consequences that may follow a military intervention. For example, the cost of military intervention in Iraq by the US was a shocking $815 billion. Moral questions aside, the sum of the cost alone has kindled numerous debates about whether the US war operation was financially justified in the first place. Thus, defenders of R2P have to rely on purely counterfactual arguments which struggle to gain a foothold amongst analysts and politicians: had there been no NATO intervention in Libya, the casualties would’ve been much higher…These counterfactual statements are notoriously difficult to prove, relying on error-prone extrapolations and faulty predictions. 

While the military intervention in 2011 Libya may not have been successful in establishing a healthy democratic state, and while it was not able to prevent the second Libyan civil war, in its initial stage it still proved to show how the R2P doctrine had shifted the mental focus of army officials from intervening to spread the political message they espouse to intervening for the sake of human lives. In improving R2P for the future, it’s important to ensure that there are tangible mechanisms in place to measure the policy’s effectiveness. This may involve changing the language of the plan to prevent, for instance, proponents of the Iraq War to twist the language of R2P to provide a post facto justification for the US intervention in toppling Saddam Hussein’s government. 

Today, political tensions in many Asian and African countries have reached a high point. With the ongoing Syrian Civil War that has left millions dead and millions more displaced, it is more important now than ever to consider the past failures and successes of the policy of “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P. Even though the UN-backed decision to intervene in the Libyan Civil War was a controversial one –some considering it a humanitarian victory and others an utter failure– the lessons learned from this endeavour can serve as a guideline for current UN officials and foreign policy, in hopes that they glean how best to proceed in the future.


The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in Action
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