Has NATO Overreached in Libya?

With the seven month-long war coming to an end in Libya followed by the killing of the country’s leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, an intense debate has resurfaced whether resolution 1973 of the UN Security Council adopted on 17 March, 2011 which authorized military action in Libya, has been bypassed. When that resolution was passed though not unanimously, the international community claimed that it had been the first endorsement of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protetct (R2P).

Humanitarian intervention has a short history albeit launched on shaky grounds at different periods of history. This is an action from the international community often backed by force to ensure the safety of civilians who become the victims of state atrocities.

The short history of Responsibility to Protect as contained in Charles Homans’ recent write up, “Just what is a just war”? carried by Foreign Policy reveals that at times the international community has practiced the doctrine. The list enumerated in the above piece dates back to 1625 when he quotes Dutch legal philosopher, Hugo Grotius “On the Law of War and Peace” saying that intervening to help a people constitutes a just war.

In the same list of examples of Responsibility to Protect, which reflect ad hoc interventionism, one finds the relentless efforts in 1933 made by a Polish Jewish legal scholar, Raphael Lemkin for international legal protection from ethnically-motivated mass killings. Lemkin’s reference to such killings reverberates in Rwanda in July, 1994 when Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis and in July, 1995 in Srebrenica when Bosnian Serbs killed about 9000 Muslim men and boys with the international community standing silent.

Charles Homans has even argued that Raphael Lemkin’s persevering efforts in 1948 persuaded the United Nations to adopt unanimously the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide”, which the U.S. ratified only in 1988. It may be relevant to note here that current American ambassador to UN, Susan Rice, who in 1994 as an aide to president Clinton, had expressed her dismay about her government’s lack of due response to Rwanda massacre.

More interestingly, analogies have been drawn in aforementioned short history of Responsibility to Protect between the 1971 Indian intervention in the then East Pakistan, Vietnam’s invasion in Cambodia  (1979) and Tanzania’s role in ousting Edi Amin of Uganda in 1979 as precursors to future interventions.

In co-authoring a book entitled “Sovereignty as Responsibility”, Francis M. Deng, who later became UN’s Special Advisor for the prevention of genocide, has argued that “sovereign states are defined not by the inviolability of their borders but by their obligations to protect their citizens”. He seems to disagree with the assumption that a country’s sovereignty is inviolable, which has hitherto been a common conviction among nation states.

Most of the UN members except a few Western developed nations have maintained their reservation on the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which is becoming a catchphrase particularly after UN-sanctioned military action against Libya by NATO-led coalition forces. A few examples in the recent past before the Libyan intervention began, show the growing fissures among the UN members on the appropriateness of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

In 1998 a clash of positions occurred in the UN Security Council meetings between the permanent members themselves when the issue of Serbian atrocities against the Albanians in the Kosovo province of Serbia was brought up and some Western nations tabled resolution authorizing the use of force against Serbia invoking the obligation to protect the citizens. Both China and Russia exercised veto in killing such authorization resolution, however, the U.S. and the European countries started bombing Kosovo even in absence of UN endorsement. Perhaps those employing force against Serbia were mindful of their vacillation with regard to massacre in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s.

The Chinese had reacted quite angrily to the position taken by the West in 1998-99 vis-à-vis Kosovo. The then Foreign Minister of China, Tang Jiaxuan had complained in 1999 saying “human rights taking precedence over sovereignty and humanitarian intervention seem to be in vogue these days threatening to wreak havoc in international relations”.

Against such acrimonious debate concerning humanitarian intervention an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was formed in 2000 in Canada with UN initiative, which was co-chaired by Gareth Evans and Mahmud Sahnoun with the objective of drawing up guidelines for humanitarian intervention. The commission released a comprehensive report in December, 2001.

The 2005 World Summit at UN provided an opportunity to the UN members in elaborating the norm of Responsibility to Protect. The then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in trying to persuade the member states to embrace this new doctrine in deterring mass atrocities committed by the state said ”It cannot be right when the international community is faced with genocide or massive human rights abuses for the UN to stand by and let them unfold to the end”. He has further added that the UN accepted Responsibility to Protect as a guiding principle for the prevention of atrocity crimes.

It has been revealed that the NATO-led intervention in Libya, which started on 19 March, 2011 with Western forces enforcing no-fly zone over the country, has reignited a controversy among the UN members. The controversy centers on whether the West, often accused of intervening under the cloak of humanitarian intervention like in Kosovo (1998-99), strictly followed the limits of UN Security Council resolution 1973. This resolution while sanctioning military action to enforce no-fly zone over Libya did not permit regime change, killing of country’s leader Qaddafi and arming of the rebels ensuring their victory in the war.

Empirical evidence shows that all those prohibited activities were carried out from the beginning of war in March, 2011 until the killing of Qaddafi a week earlier. Therefore, Micah Zenko has accused NATO of violating the mandate of UN resolution 1973. More surprisingly, even Gareth Evans, one the co-chair of International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty has criticized the NATO action arguing that some activities undertaken were not permissible under the explicit legal terms of UN Security Council resolution 1973. The advocates of doctrine of Responsibility to Protect should revisit their position in view of growing discord the Libyan example has generated.

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2 Responses to Has NATO Overreached in Libya?

  1. lkafle says:

    great analysis on Libya sir. Although the fascist dictator was killed even then basic human rights have been the issue

  2. Hira Thapa says:

    Thanks for reading me and commenting on my piece.

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