School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal

To sever or salvage? Disaggregating the coercive military component of the R2P

By Jamal Nabulsi 

Jamal Nabulsi is a Master of International Relations (Advanced) student at the Australian National University. He is interested primarily in the ethics of war and normative International Relations theory. His Master’s thesis is on the ethical theory around preemptive and preventive wars.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine is not dead, but one of its limbs is gangrenous and in dire need of amputation to save the body from infection. This article will argue that, in light of the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, the coercive military component of R2P must be disaggregated from the body of the doctrine. This will allow for the consensus around R2P to widen, strengthening its normative force, while the debate about coercive military intervention can carry on outside of the R2P framework. This article will outline the R2P doctrine, describe its implementation in Libya and the consequences thereof, explain why proposed solutions fall short, before offering disaggregation as a solution.

The R2P was first articulated in the 2001 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) as the notion that a state’s sovereignty is contingent upon its fulfilment of its responsibility to protect its population from avoidable catastrophes, and that when a state fails to fulfil this responsibility (either through inability or unwillingness), the responsibility falls on the international community (ICISS, 2001, viii). The R2P was further clarified in the 2005 United Nations (UN) World Summit Outcome document, as well as being unanimously adopted by the UN Member States (United Nations, 2005, p.30). The 2009 Report of the UN Secretary-General on implementing R2P outlined a three-pillar strategy for implementation. Pillar one is the responsibility of states to protect their populations from the atrocities of ethnic cleansing, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Pillar two is the international community’s commitment to assist states in protecting their populations from such atrocities. Pillar three is the UN Member States’ responsibility ‘to respond collectively in a timely and decisive manner when a state is manifestly failing to provide such protection’ (United Nations, 2009, p.9). This includes non-violent measures under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, collaboration with regional organisations under Chapter VIII and/or coercive military intervention under Chapter VII (United Nations, 2009, pp.8-9).

The 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya was a watershed moment for the R2P doctrine (Evans, 2013). It was the first time that coercive military intervention under Chapter VII was authorised by the UN Security Council against the express will of the state in question with the stated intention of protecting a population from falling victim to mass atrocities. This authorisation was granted in the context of the ‘Arab Spring’—a wave of popular, anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the Middle East and North Africa from the end of 2010. In contrast to the relatively peaceful transitions of power that occurred in Egypt and Tunisia, the protests in Libya quickly turned violent (Glanville, 2013).

Muammar al-Qaddafi, then leader of Libya, promised to ‘show no mercy’ in crushing the ‘cockroaches’ protesting his rule (as quoted in Glanville, 2013, p.333). Such dehumanising language, echoing that used by genocidaires prior to the Rwandan genocide, was a key factor in spurring the Security Council into action (Hehir, 2013, p.138). Another key factor was the condemnation of the Qaddafi regime’s human rights violations by relevant regional organisations (African Union, 2011), and subsequent calls by some of them to establish a no-fly zone in Libya (Council of the League of Arab States, 2011; Glanville, 2013, p.334).

On February 26, 2011, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1970, which condemned the Qaddafi regime’s violence against civilians (invoking Libya’s responsibility to protect its citizens) and imposed an arms embargo on Libya, among other measures (United Nations Security Council, 2011a). Subsequently, on March 17, 2011, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 which, most notably, implicitly authorised coercive military intervention in Libya through the enforcement of a no-fly zone, aimed at preventing the Qaddafi regime’s air force from attacking Libyan civilians (United Nations Security Council, 2011b). This resolution was passed by a 10-0 vote, with China, Russia, Brazil, Germany and India abstaining (Silander, 2013, p.269). The reservations expressed by these countries were in relation to the dubious effectiveness of coercive intervention and the lack of specificity regarding the exact form that the military action would take (Odeyemi, 2016, pp.11-12).

Upon NATO’s implementation of Resolution 1973, these concerns were borne out with disastrous consequences for the Libyan people. Rather than focussing strictly on protecting the population, the NATO mandate quickly evolved to include overthrowing the Qaddafi regime (Bachman, 2015, p.56). This was justified on the grounds of its necessity for protecting Libyans in the long-run, however, Kuperman (2013) convincingly argues that regime change was sought as an end in itself, not as a means to the end of protecting the population. NATO forces engaged in actions that were inconsistent with protecting the population but that sought regime change, such as attacking Qaddafi regime forces that were in retreat and failing to pursue offered ceasefires (Kuperman, 2013, pp.113-115).

NATO airstrikes in Libya were markedly discriminatory, with independent estimates of civilian casualties ranging from 55 (Amnesty International, 2012) to 72 (Human Rights Watch, 2012), resulting from 9,700 strike sorties. However, NATO support for Libyan rebel groups facilitated the incidence of countless war crimes and crimes against humanity. During the conflict, for instance, it has been reported that the NATO-backed rebels were committing similar human rights violations to those perpetrated by the Qaddafi regime (Bachman, 2015, pp.61-62).

But the most egregious crimes by the rebels have been committed since NATO evacuated, all but shirking their responsibility to properly see through the transition to democratic government and to help in rebuilding Libya. These crimes include the racially-targeted expulsion of Tawergha’s 30,000 inhabitants (Human Rights Watch, 2011a), the summary execution of Qaddafi and widespread reprisal killings and torture (Human Rights Watch, 2011b). The first elected Libyan Prime Minister lasted one month, before being removed with a vote of no confidence (Bachman, 2015, pp.63-64). Today, Libya remains deeply divided as competing militia groups continue to fight for control over the country amidst widespread lawlessness and economic collapse (Amnesty International, 2017, p.233). The ongoing human suffering that this situation entails is incalculable.

Would Libya have been better off without a NATO-led intervention? According to Kuperman’s (2013, p.123) plausible counterfactual, the NATO-led intervention magnified the death toll by seven to ten times. Regardless of the accuracy of this estimate, the NATO-led intervention evidently led to untold human suffering, and its ramifications continue to endanger the lives of countless Libyans.

The disastrous outcome of the NATO-led military intervention in Libya has inflamed the controversy around the coercive use of military force to achieve the humanitarian goals of R2P. This has, in turn, damaged the international support for the R2P doctrine as a whole. The Libyan intervention drew sharp criticism from the BRICS states—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—among others. Their foremost concerns were that NATO grossly overstepped its mandate (outlined in Resolution 1973) by pursuing regime change, that disproportionate force was used, that opportunities for political dialogue and peaceful settlement were ignored, and that the arms embargo was breached by supplying weapons to the rebels (Bellamy, 2015, p.179). This controversy around the coercive military aspects of R2P’s third pillar has meant that the consensus around the doctrine as a whole has frayed. This is evident most clearly in the rhetoric used by Russia to reject authorising intervention in Syria (regardless of Russian intentions behind this rhetoric) (Gifkins, 2012).

The positions of the BRICS countries become increasingly important as the global balance of power continues to shift in their favour (Morris, 2013, p.1280). In response to the perceived excesses of the NATO-led intervention in Libya, and the damage that this did to the credibility of the R2P doctrine, Brazil have proposed the concept of ‘responsibility while protecting’ (RWP). While endorsing the basic principles of R2P, RWP calls for establishing a set of guidelines for implementing R2P. These include the strict chronological sequencing of the three pillars, limiting the resort to force and holding intervening states to account for breaching the guidelines (Kenkel, 2016).

With similar intentions and content, China proposed the concept of ‘responsible protection’ (RP). RP requires that the goals of intervention are outlined more clearly, the means of protection are limited, the intervenors are responsible for post-intervention rebuilding, and mechanisms of supervision are put in place to hold intervenors accountable for any breaches of their defined mandate, among other measures (Zongze, 2012). Both RP and RWP were thus, at least ostensibly, attempts to bridge the widening gap between R2P supporters and sceptics.

Although RWP and RP are well-thought-out attempts to address the serious concerns with R2P that arose in the wake of the Libyan intervention, they have ultimately failed to make a significant impact on the doctrine (Bachman, 2015, p.64). If a set of rules governing an R2P intervention, like those presented in RWP and RP, could be strictly enforced by an international authority, perhaps they would sufficiently alleviate the ailments of R2P. However, in the current international system, where no such authority exists and national interest-driven ulterior motives for intervention are inevitably present, RWP and RP are insufficient and have failed to gain traction among Western powers.

The presence of such ulterior motives makes R2P interventions prone to expanding their objectives, even if this works against the supposedly primary objective of protecting populations (Kuperman, 2013, p.135). Evidence of national interest-driven ulterior motives being a necessary condition for R2P intervention can be seen in the inconsistency with which R2P has been applied. For instance, it is suggested that the US interest in Libya’s rich natural resources and geostrategic importance were decisive factors in choosing to intervene there (Hehir, 2013, p.156). On the other hand, US interests in its regional alliances have led to an almost diametrically opposite response to the similar situation in Bahrain, where pro-democracy protestors have been brutally tortured and killed (Graubart, 2015, p.214). This is not to claim that humanitarian concerns are not considered whatsoever, but that they are overridden by national interest. These ulterior motives not only negatively impact the effectiveness of interventions to protect populations, but also have negative reputational costs for the R2P doctrine, as evidenced by the current aversion of BRICS and other states to the doctrine (Paris, 2014). This aversion is primarily due to their concerns with the coercive military aspects of pillar three, despite their fundamental agreement with the underlying principles of R2P (Stuenkel, 2014).

The problem of ulterior motives has led Graubart (2015) to advocate for eliminating the coercive military component of R2P entirely. He argues that normatively legitimating military intervention to protect populations is effectively establishing a new category for resorting to force. This new category is ripe for manipulation and its net impact in being implemented will only be more national interest-driven interventions that will ultimately cause more suffering than they will prevent (Graubart, 2015, pp.210-217).

A strong argument against the case for eliminating the coercive military component is that such interventions are going to happen either way, so it is better that we have a set of norms governing these interventions, rather than allow them to be driven entirely by national interest. It is argued, for instance, that the ‘pragmatic appeal of R2P is that rather than be paralysed by geopolitical hierarchies, it carves out a category of mixed-motive, status quo friendly interventions that nevertheless save lives’ (Graubart, 2015, p.204). In response, it is argued that military interventions are inevitably going to be driven by motives of national interest, but R2P increases the prevalence of these interventions by providing a humanitarian cover for these motives, thus reducing the normative hurdles in front of intervening militarily (Graubart, 2015, p.217).

This fiery debate around coercive military intervention, which was stoked by the Libyan intervention, will continue to rage on. But rather than eliminating the coercive military component of R2P completely, the lesson that should be drawn from the Libyan case is that the coercive military component should be disaggregated from the rest of the R2P doctrine. This will allow for the military intervention debate to continue outside of the framework of R2P, while allowing the consensus around R2P to strengthen significantly, ultimately leading to increased protection of populations in the future.

There is seemingly a trade-off between R2P’s ability to not allow states to act indifferently in the face of looming mass atrocities and its not providing states with an excuse to engage in national interest-driven interventions under the guise of humanitarianism. Removing the coercive military component from R2P softens this trade-off. It prevents R2P from being used as an excuse for military interventions driven primarily by national interest. However, without its coercive military component, R2P can still encourage the international community to act in the face of mass atrocities. For instance, Gallagher (2015, pp.1268-1271) highlights the utility of international assistance under pillar two for addressing threats posed by non-state armed groups.

Coercive military intervention is by far the most contentious part of the R2P doctrine as it is invariably where states’ interests are the most at stake. The use of force ‘will always be politics all the way down’ (Morris, 2013, p.1282). Removing the coercive military component will purge R2P of the most corrosive national interest-driven motives. This will allow the protection of populations to remain the primary objective of R2P implementations.

Moreover, this will strengthen the consensus around the R2P doctrine. There is widespread agreement on the basic principles of R2P (Morris, 2013, p.1283), even among the BRICS and other sceptical countries (Odeyemi, 2016, p.14). States will no longer fear that the ‘soft’ pillar three actions (such as sanctions) will constitute the thin end of the pillar three wedge, which will be used to open the door for military intervention; a fear that Russia and China have expressed in justifying their vetos on Security Council Resolutions regarding Syria (Morris, 2013, p.1276; 2016, p.206). So, removing its coercive military component will allow for an expanded consensus to build around R2P, solidifying it as an international norm, increasing its breadth of cascade and depth of internalisation among states. This will ultimately lead to more consistent application of R2P and therefore more widespread and systematic protection of populations globally.

The huge hit that R2P’s credibility took in the wake of the Libyan intervention will be deflected, allowing the doctrine to protect populations from mass atrocities into the future. It will do so by focussing on solidifying the norms around sovereign responsibilities under pillar one, providing support to states to prevent mass atrocities under pillar two, and using nonviolent means to convince states to uphold their responsibilities under pillar three. It is acknowledged that some situations, such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide, do require coercive military intervention to stop mass atrocities from occurring. Therefore, the debate around military intervention should continue outside of the R2P framework, and R2P might still be able to trigger the doctrine that will potentially come out of this debate. The content of this debate is outside the scope of this article, but Ramesh Thakur (2013, p.63) suggests that, since interventions are likely to occur in developing countries, this debate should initially take place between the governments and civil societies of developing countries, and then between developing and developed countries.

Disaggregating the military intervention component of R2P is not a panacea and is likely to be met with significant opposition. Firstly, it does not address any of the concerns about decisions to intervene militarily. However, it does prevent these concerns from impacting the R2P doctrine as a whole, thereby saving the body of the doctrine from normative contamination (Morris, 2013, p.1283).

One counterargument to this disaggregation proposal is that R2P is built on three mutually-reinforcing pillars of equal length (Welsh, 2016, p.5) and that this disaggregation would essentially be to saw off half of pillar three, causing the entire R2P edifice to collapse. R2P was born out of the urge to prevent mass atrocities such as those that occurred in Rwanda and Kosovo, atrocities that would have required military intervention to prevent. So, to remove the military intervention component would be to rob the doctrine of its core content and render it ineffectual in addressing the problems that it was designed to prevent. However, ‘the true essence of R2P is the understanding that sovereignty denotes responsibility rather than license’ (Morris, 2013, p.1283). R2P’s real power is in its normative force to encourage states and the wider international community to ensure that this responsibility is fulfilled (Morris, 2013, p.1283). Moreover, the debate around military intervention would not be jettisoned entirely, just removed from the R2P framework. The (perhaps once reasonable) desire to maintain the conceptual holism of R2P has become a demand for unattainable perfection (Morris, 2013, p.1280).

Another counterargument is that this proposal would simply be rejected, especially by Western powers. However, there is reason to believe that disaggregating coercive military intervention from R2P would gain wide support in the UN General Assembly (Graubart, 2015, p.218). If this support was not forthcoming, a potential weaker solution could be to remove coercive military intervention from pillar three and make this the fourth pillar of R2P. This may go some way in addressing the problems with R2P that were highlighted by the case of Libya. However, considerations around the conceptual implications of this solution are outside the scope of this article.

In light of the disastrous humanitarian situation that has resulted from the military intervention in Libya and NATO’s perceived abuse of its mandate, the future of the R2P doctrine is in question. The key lesson that should be drawn from the Libyan case is that the coercive military component must be disaggregated from R2P. The controversial debate around military intervention will rage on, but this solution will salvage the R2P doctrine, strengthening its normative force and, ultimately, allowing for more people to be protected from mass atrocities in the future.



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