At the beginning of the 21st century, the notion that Western democracies have a responsibility to protect civilians from the ravages of mad dictators and civil war was in its ascendancy. Today, it lies in shreds in the bloody, rubble-strewn streets of Syria and Egypt.
To be sure, aid workers and humanitarians continue to work in many troubled regions, providing much needed medical aid and humanitarian assistance. But the notion that the “international community” has a moral obligation to use military force to stop the wholesale killing of civilians is now little more than a polite fiction in the halls of the UN and the academy.
The doctrine of humanitarian intervention was given its fullest expression in the report of the International Commission in Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, which followed a wide-ranging, global consultation, including discussions with various state governments, academics and civil society organizations. Although based on existing humanitarian principles, the doctrine asserts that individuals must be protected from mass killing – in particular genocide and crimes against humanity – even when these acts occur within the territory of sovereign states, thus redefining the concept of humanitarian intervention to focus more directly on the rights of threatened individuals rather than those of intervening states.
In cases of genocide and crimes against humanity, ICISS gave a preeminent role to the United Nations Security Council in authorizing remedial action, while also offering a concise and principled framework within which to act as well as various threshold criteria for international military intervention.
The Responsibility to Protect doctrine or R2P, as it came to be known, was the brainchild of then-Liberal foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. Although Axworthy’s name never appeared on the actual report – that honour went to the Commission’s two co-chairs, Algerian diplomat Mohammed Sahnoun and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans – he and officials in the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs were among its chief architects and proponents.
The main principles of the report were subsequently embraced by both the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005 and successive resolutions of the Security Council, as well as by a number of regional organizations, such as the African Union. First in Kosovo, where NATO acted without the UN’s blessing, and subsequently in Libya when it did, it appeared as if the idea of R2P had some currency.
However, the brief precedent the UN set for itself in Libya proved to be short-lived because key members of the Security Council – Russia and China – did not want it followed in Syria. Russia had a major political stake in supporting the al-Assad regime and along with China opposed any kind of UN-sponsored military action that would intrude upon the sovereignty of states.
The stage was set for military intervention in Libya when two regional organizations took quick action a few weeks after public uprisings against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s regime began. Gaddafi had few friends in the Arab world, so the Arab League’s condemnation came as no surprise. In the case of the African Union, Gaddafi had more friends, but his actions clearly did not sit well with those African states which had turned to democracy. The Arab League suspended Libya’s membership in February 2011 while the African Union also issued a strong denunciation of the Libyan government.
As the situation in Libya deteriorated further, the Security Council swung into action and authorized member states to “take all necessary measures…to protect civilians” under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, establishing a no-fly zone (NFZ), an arms embargo and economic sanctions. The rationale for the imposition of a NFZ over Libya was ostensibly to avert a bloodbath by Gaddafi’s forces, specifically in the cities of Benghazi and Tobruk.
On March 19, the United States joined with Britain, Canada, France, and Italy in engaging militarily with Libya while NATO eventually took over control of the no-fly-zone operation (NFZ) from the coalition of countries that were already involved in the Libyan operations, which by now also included Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain. The NATO campaign was supported actively by Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates and was also joined by Sweden. By August 2011, the Libyan National Transitional Council, with NATO’s support, had taken over the country and removed Gaddafi from power. Presented to the world as a success, the mission ended on October 31.
The Libyan intervention involved the ad hoc utilization of NATO resources negotiated by a coalition of the capable and committed. Moreover, as seen in high-level public statements, agreeing to disagree openly did not, in the end, prevent NATO’s activists from mounting an effective air campaign nor did it prevent it from recruiting non-NATO participants such as Qatar to join the effort.
However, there were significant underlying rifts between the Security Council and NATO over the operations. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing the NFZ was notable not by who voted for it, but rather for who abstained: Russia, Germany, India, Brazil and China. There was clearly little appetite among the so-called emerging powers of the international system for this undertaking. As for the NATO coalition, Turkey and many of NATO’s eastern European members shared Germany’s reservations about the mission. Turkey also had significant trade and investment links with Libya, to add another complicating layer. The Libyan mission was thus a NATO-led mission without many of its members. NATO à la carte was convenient in this instance, but the alliance was not acting as a whole.
In the Syrian case, the Arab League went straight to the UN to secure a UN resolution, hoping for a similar response and outcome to what had been achieved in Libya, to unseat Syria’s unpopular and repressive ruler Bashar al-Assad – a leader who had turned his own guns against his people as the popular protests of Arab Spring engulfed Damascus and other cities in the country. The League's proactive overture to the UN complemented its own efforts under the Arab League Action Plan of November 22, 2011 to achieve a peaceful resolution of the crisis – including the deployment of an Arab League of Arab States observer mission in Syria. Unfortunately, the observer mission was unable to carry out its monitoring mission tasks effectively and was eventually suspended barely a month after arriving in Syria.
The UN Security Council draft resolution on Syria, which had initially been spurred by the League, was months in the making and the result of painstaking, behind-the-scenes negotiations. In all, nine countries voted for it while Brazil, India, Lebanon and South Africa abstained. Although the draft resolution did not call for immediate sanctions, it laid out some clear markers for Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime to change its behaviour and included harsh measures, including the possible use of force, to follow if it did not. The Americans, French, and the British thought they had finally secured the support of Russia and China in the careful wording of the resolution. It turned out they were wrong: both Russia and China vetoed it, thus effectively scuttling any future action by the Security Council to unseat al-Assad.
UN-sponsored sanctions have hurt the al-Assad regime, but Russian opposition and outright circumvention of the arms embargo against Syria (supported by China), combined with Syria’s porous borders with neighbouring countries, meant that al-Assad has been able to secure the resources and material he needs to stay in power.
In Syria, the Libyan “model” of intervention ran into trouble. Russia and China believed that NATO had vastly extended its reach in using the NFZ as a pretext to attack Gaddafi’s forces and support the opposition in its efforts to topple his regime. The Russians, in particular, did not want a repeat of the Libyan experience in Syria where they have direct strategic interests (specifically the port of Tartus) and have done everything to ensure that the al-Assad remains in power.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s remarkable comeback when many in the region were writing his obituary is a stark reminder that national self-interest and sovereignty trump humanitarian principles and R2P when really put to the test. Despite a great deal of hand wringing, Western nations continue to sit on the sidelines and watch Syria’s fires burn as hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed or displaced. Feckless, inept U.S. diplomacy has also been a contributing factor, not to mention disappearing “red lines” even as evidence mounts that al-Assad is murdering his own people with chemical weapons.
The Libyan intervention thus stands as a “one-off" example of a successful “hands-on” intervention. It is not precedent-setting for the simple reason that some Council members didn't like the precedent, as well as there being profound disagreement concerning how to deal with Syria. But it also points to a much deeper set of problems with the UN’s role in the maintenance of international peace and security – the problems of deadlock and paralysis when permanent members of the Council differ on fundamentals and there are more than one set of hands on the wheel and more than one foot on the brake.
The reality is that politics all too often stands in the way of any kind of direct intervention – not least by the Security Council – after a conflict has escalated beyond the point of no return. Without fundamental reform to the United Nations Security Council, the concept of R2P – or anything like it – is doomed.