Monday, July 25, 2011

Taking the long view: Responsibility to protect, in Libya and beyond

(Thanks to IntLawGrrls for the opportunity to contribute this guest post)

In a watershed moment in international policymaking, there has been a clear declaration: there is a "responsibility to act" in the face of mass atrocity, to quote President Barack Obama's speech of March 28 on Libya.
But what is being done in Libya to uphold this responsibility must not be seen as the poster child of responsibility to protect, the evolving international principle/norm about which IntLawGrrls frequently have posted.
The responsibility to protect doctrine undoubtedly inspires this administration. Yet responsibility to protect is not fully encapsulated by its actions or words on Libya.
Responsibility to protect was, until recently, largely absent in public discourse.
As set forth in paragraphs 138-139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome, responsibility to protect asserts that states have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. When they fail to do so, the doctrine holds, the international community has the responsibility to act using all peaceful measures, with military intervention as a last resort. U.N. member states unanimously adopted responsibility to protect in a General Assembly Resolution in 2005, and the concept has developed significantly since then.
Measures to address allegations of mass killings of civilians by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi began with economic sanctions and travel bans. It was only when these measures failed to stop Qaddafi’s “no mercy” policy that the exceptional last resort of U.N. Security Council military action become a reality.
The effectiveness of using these measures in Libya remains open to debate. But it is purely positive that a number of world powers have reacted to protect innocent lives, in the face of the reality and threat of continuing massacres in Libya.
The public discussion of responsibility to protect in the context of Libya, however, has the unfortunate consequence of associating the concept solely with military intervention -- an intervention that is likely to be exercised rarely and only by Western nations against states outside their direct sphere of influence. To associate responsibility to protect exclusively with military intervention is a grave mistake; it will undermine the power and reach of this moral principle, and add to both the illegitimate and legitimate fears of many states about foreign invasion.
Responsibility to protect doctrine makes clear that successfully protecting populations from mass atrocities requires a continuum of actions by states: The continuum includes:
► Preventing mass atrocity;
► Reacting to the threat or mass atrocity taking place; and
► Rebuilding, which encompasses “a genuine commitment to helping to build a durable peace…”
Viewing responsibility to protect through the narrow lens of Libya obscures its primary commitment to "militaryless" prevention of mass atrocities. As with any successful act of prevention, success in averting civilian deaths leads to a lack of media coverage and further associates responsibility to protect exclusively with military intervention.
Responsibility to protect has been evolving and implemented to greater effect, before Libya:
► Fears over potential atrocities in South Sudan this year were actively averted by a variety of international and national actions.
► The prevention of a return to serious violence in Guinea in 2010, following the massacres of 2009, was also a successful invocation of responsibility to protect without military interventions.
► The same was true in Kenya after the 2008 elections, when swift international diplomacy averted mass atrocity.
These are instances in which the responsibility to protect principle will be most effective, in which states act to prevent mass atrocity without ever needing to get to the last resort of military action, a last resort that can only be fraught with moral, legal and political conundrums.
The nature of the news cycle and its appetite for major conflict often results giving violence greater attention than prevention of violence. The success of the moral principles embodied in the universal pledge to respect responsibility to protect will depend on ensuring that images and strategies of peaceful prevention -- and not, primarily, of military action -- are emphasized in utilizing the principle of the responsibility to protect.
Resort to military intervention will and should remain the exception not the rule.
We should wholeheartedly welcome the growing recognition that there is a global interest—indeed responsibility -- in preventing tyrants from committing mass atrocities. But let us not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Let us take the long view in Libya and beyond.

(My thanks to Daniel Stewart, Visiting Lecturer and International Human Rights Clinical Teaching Fellow with the Human Rights and Genocide Clinic at my home institution, Cardozo Law; he contributed significantly to this post)

No comments: