March 28th, 2011

The UN Security Council resolutions coming down hard on Gaddafi, No. 1970 of 26 February and No. 1973 of 17 March, use one particular phrase that bears thinking about. My italics:

Recalling the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population … (SCR 1970. recital)

Expressing its determination to ensure the protection of civilians … (SCR 1973, recital)

Considering that the establishment of a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya constitutes an important element for the protection of civilians … (SCR 1973, another recital)

The term has a history.

In 2001 a group of high-level foreign-policy wonks and experienced players of a broadly progressive cast, led by Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia, issued a report intended to move ahead the debate on “humanitarian intervention”. I’ve extracted a few of the money quotes at the end, with the link. Incidentally they proposed ditching the language “humanitarian intervention”, as military action is the opposite of humanitarian.

The report tried to thread the needle between a traditional high view of state sovereignty, and an expansive doctrine of human rights that would set few practical limits to intervention. What they came up with, under the label of the responsibility to protect, is the idea that there is just cause for military intervention if it is the only way to prevent or stop large-scale civilian loss of life, when the government fails in its duty to do so or is itself the perpetrator. (Leave aside for now the effectiveness conditions which apply to any resort to arms.)

I think they were on to something. The report itself notes (1.35) that

The defence of state sovereignty, by even its strongest supporters, does not include any claim of the unlimited power of a state to do what it wants to its own people.

On the other hand, declaring open season on every government that violates human rights is infeasible and undesirable, since all states do so. In practice a doctrine on these lines would amount to the hypocrisy of the strongest. Why, it would even authorise the King of France to send ships and soldiers to help colonials rebelling, on the pretext of minor rights violations, against his kindly – if sometimes misguided – cousin the King of England.

The ICISS doesn’t mention it, but their distinction would have appealed to Thomas Hobbes, a thoroughgoing statist and opponent of any wider list of fundamental rights:

The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no covenant be relinquished.

The Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes, 1660; Ch XXI, “Of the Liberty of Subjects”.

So French, British and American diplomats pressed the trendy new R2P language into service to allow armed intervention against Gaddafi. Fairly? It doesn’t look like it. What he did was to use violence against his political opponents. These were originally non-violent, but have now taken up arms and become rebels in the ordinary sense. His response, originally disproportionate, now falls within typical parameters for armed conflict against irregular forces – and much less than the Marines used in Fallujah or the IDF in Gaza. There have been genocidal threats in his rhetoric, and allegations have been made of disappearances, executions of suspected mutineers, and the like.

What we have here is rhetorical mission creep. The R2P concept has been distorted and pressed into the service of a “liberal intervention” whose real grounds it doesn’t cover. That’s a shame. We need proper R2P for places like Darfur and Côte d’Ivoire, and discrediting it is a small intellectual disaster.

More knowledgeable discussion at Crooked Timber on a post by Conor Foley.

Note 1
The R2P fiddle doesn’t mean that the Libyan intervention is unjustified. You can make a much more honest case for it that still distinguishes Libya from a generic sleazy autocracy like Bahrain:
(1) Gaddafi is nuts.
(2) He’s a long record of backing terrorism (Lockerbie, the IRA).
(3) The rebels hold half the country, so it’s a civil war, and you have to back one side – neutrality is a tacit pro-incumbent policy.
(4) The international community needs a quick resolution to secure a stable oil and gas supply.
(5) Gaddafi’s repression so far is extremely brutal and random by regional standards – eg using mercenaries, mass arrests in homes.
(6) An unusually soft target and good chance of success.

Still, however you do justify it, you are lowering the conceptual barrier to future adventures.

Note 2
What were the Chinese thinking of? They block action on Darfur because even honest, ring-fenced R2P sets a bad precedent (ignoring my clever Hobbes argument). Now they merely abstain on resolutions which use R2P to set a precedent that goes much further than any Darfur intervention would have done. Perhaps they are really, really worried about the oil market. Or they just buy into reason 1.

ICISS Extracts
Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty
Gareth Evans, Mohamed Sahnoun et al. Ottawa 2001.


2.1 Millions of human beings remain at the mercy of civil wars, insurgencies, state repression and state collapse. This is a stark and undeniable reality, and it is at the heart of all the issues with which this Commission has been wrestling. What is at stake here is not making the world safe for big powers, or trampling over the sovereign rights of small ones, but delivering practical protection for ordinary people, at risk of their lives, because their states are unwilling or unable to protect them.
2.25 The emerging principle in question is that intervention for human protection purposes, including military intervention in extreme cases, is supportable when major harm to civilians is occurring or imminently apprehended, and the state in question is unable or unwilling to end the harm, or is itself the perpetrator. [my italics]
4.19 In the Commission’s view, military intervention for human protection purposes is justified in two broad sets of circumstances, namely in order to halt or avert:

  • large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or
  • large scale “ethnic cleansing,” actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing,forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape.

If either or both of these conditions are satisfied, it is our view that the “just cause” component of the decision to intervene is amply satisfied. [authors' italics]
4.24 While our “just cause” conditions are broadly framed, the Commission also makes clear that they exclude some situations which have been claimed from time to time to justify the coercive use of military force for human protection purposes.
(4.25) First, the Commission has resisted any temptation to identify as a ground for military intervention human rights violations falling short of outright killing or ethnic cleansing, for example systematic racial discrimination, or the systematic imprisonment or other repression of political opponents. These may be eminently appropriate cases for considering the application of political, economic or military sanctions, but they do not in the Commission’s view justify military action for human protection purposes.
(4.26) Secondly, the Commission has taken a similar view in relation to cases where a population, having clearly expressed its desire for a democratic regime, is denied its democratic rights by a military take-over…..

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