Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 21:07 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 21:07 | SYDNEY

Libya: Little commitment to R2P norms


Ashley Townshend


23 March 2011 08:33

Operation Odyssey Dawn is designed to save Libyan civilians from slaughter, and it is tempting — as Graeme Dobell has indicated — to regard it as evidence of the 'responsibility to protect' (R2P). This norm is about breaching state sovereignty when political leaders are unable or unwilling to provide security for their citizens. As both the Arab League and UN Security Council referred explicitly to R2P, it would seem — at least in rhetoric — that this idea is catching on.

But I'm not sure this is the case.

While liberal democracies and UN agencies have certainly used R2P lingo, their palpable reluctance to step up in Libya belies the international community's more self-interested concerns. To be sure, UN Resolution 1973 was passed relatively quickly, as Security Council resolutions go. Yet, after the Arab League decided to back a no-fly zone, it still took several long days before the Obama Administration got comfortable with the idea. During this time, we almost certainly missed the opportunity (if it ever existed) to make a lasting difference to the rebels' momentum.

So, where was the world when the rebels were holed up outside Tripoli' Why didn't we act when Qadhafi bombed them back to Benghazi' And what explains the 'limited war' that might help, but not solve, Libya's democratic deficiency'

Until last Thursday, world leaders were content to condemn the bloodshed but take no action in the Libyan revolt. They were guided, presumably, by an assessment of their strategic interests and an awareness of the risks associated with becoming embroiled in yet another civil war in a foreign land. While the sudden turn-around was undoubtedly sparked by our liberal sensibilities – which railed at the thought of 'unspeakable horrors' in Benghazi — this humanitarian duty had not permeated deeply enough to jolt our leaders to action when the rebels still had a chance.

This is not surprising. As I have argued elsewhere, armed intervention for humanitarian purposes is rarely as worthwhile or noble as it seems.

In almost every small war of strategic irrelevance, our liberal leaders have either stood on the sidelines (eg. Sudan and Rwanda) or have intervened half-heartedly (eg. Somalia). Even where we do consider our interests to be at stake (eg. Iraq and Afghanistan) the twin dilemmas of political will and public opinion conspire to undermine our military commitment. As such, our efforts are rarely enough to tilt the fortunes of 'our side', but invariably sufficient to prolong the conflict, encourage dangerous false hopes and put 'skin' in a game we've little intention of winning.

While we may espouse and believe our own humanitarian rhetoric, our actions speak volumes about our responsibility to protect.

Photo by Flickr user B.R.Q.