Libya is a striking example of the humanitarian norm being used selectively to justify a breach of sovereignty and foreign intervention.
March 19 marks six years since the United States began its “humanitarian intervention” in Libya with the help of NATO. Amid the Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian governments in the region, intervention in Libya was justified under the concept of “responsibility to protect.” The intervention ended in regime change, leaving many critical that the norm was abused for imperialist means, rather than humanitarian sentiments.
The Responsibility to Protect, otherwise known as “R2P,” aims to prevent human rights abuses, genocide and war crimes through international response. This principle justifies intervention in another sovereign state based on moral grounds.
Critics, however, have argued that R2P has commonly been used as a means to serve the foreign policy interests of Western powers. Policy analyst David Rieff has referred to R2P as a “two-tiered system of interveners and intervened upon,” which is dictated by the rules of historically imperialist powers.
“For those of us who feared that R2P was just a warrant for war, our fears have been vindicated,” said Rieff to the Economist at the time of the NATO intervention in Libya.
According to the R2P norm, a sovereign state is responsible for protecting its own citizens and preventing atrocities, and the international community also has a responsibility to step in when a state fails to protect its citizens. But this should only occur when all other diplomatic options have been exhausted and military action should be a last resort, according to the R2P doctrine.
However, this concept actually leads to an asymmetrical system with imperialist overtones, according to Ugandan political commentator, Mahmood Mamdani, who argues that through the language of R2P, non-Western countries are more often defined as rogue or failed states and singled out for intervention.
Furthermore, Mamdani argues that states earmarked for outside intervention on humanitarian grounds are seen not as “active agents in their own emancipation, but as passive beneficiaries of an external ‘responsibility to protect,’” which is seen largely as a “legitimate exercise.”
“The result is once again a bifurcated system whereby state sovereignty obtains in large parts of the world but is suspended in more and more countries in Africa and the Middle East,” Mamdani wrote in 2010.
In the case of Libya, the R2P concept was used by the UN Security Council to condemn Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, impose sanctions and then justify intervention into the country by “all necessary means” to protect civilians. There was concern that unrest and violence under Gadhafi would lead to serious human rights abuses. Others, however, have argued that the NATO intervention was more about wanting to control Libyan oil, than it was for humanitarian motives.
Well before the Security Council resolutions, Gadhafi had been demonized by the West as an evil authoritarian dictator. Already wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, Gadhafi had long been accused of losing his legitimacy for slaughtering his own people.
Professor of African American Studies and Political Science Horace Campbell, explains that amid the demonization of Gadhafi’s regime, “The Security Council authorization was stretched from a clear and limited civilian protection mandate into a military campaign for regime change and the execution of the President of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi.”
Campbell argues that Gadhafi’s rule should have been condemned, but the guise of humanitarian intervention from NATO also should have been opposed. He criticized the organization as “the instrument through which the capitalist class of North America and Europe seeks to impose its political will on the rest of the world, however warped by the increasingly outmoded neoliberal form of capitalism.”
One of the major players pushing for R2P-style intervention in Libya was former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her decision was likely influenced by international criticism for the failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994 under then-president Bill Clinton, a tragic miscalculation which many see as a key example of the importance of acting on the “responsibility to protect” doctrine.
But the Libya intervention overstepped the bounds of R2P and soon morphed into a full-blown military operation. While speed was seen as critical in Libya, the intervention dragged on for more than seven months and ended with the killing of Gadhafi.
NATO 2011 War in Libya: Before and After
Clinton adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, only 11 days into the intervention wrote that the “humanitarian motive offered is limited, conditional and refers to a specific past situation,” as revealed in the infamous Benghazi email leaks.
The push for international intervention in Libya was not without dissent. In particular, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — known as the BRICS countries — were concerned as to how exactly an R2P-style intervention would be carried out, particularly when ceasefire offers were rejected and Libyan rebel forces were given support.
As former Australian Foreign Minister and one of the primary architects behind the original R2P norm, Gareth Evans noted in 2012, “The BRICS complaints were not about the initial military response, but what came shortly after, when it became clear that the U.S., Britain and France were set on regime change.”
President Obama defended the intervention in March 2011, saying that “when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act,” while also claiming that “we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges.”
Many countries, even those who voted in favor of the resolution, became concerned as the conflict dragged on, unaware that the intervention would be so devastating.
Obama later admitted in April 2016 that the intervention which ousted Gadhafi and subsequently threw Libya into chaos was the worst mistake of his presidency.