An R2P Intervention in Libya?

By all accounts a “mass atrocity event”[i] is unfolding in Libya. There is less certainty as to whether the international community will find the means to respond.

A group of NGOs under the leadership of UN Watch has issued an urgent appeal (see endnote for a link to full statement)[ii] to world leaders for international intervention in Libya: “We urge you to mobilize the United Nations and the international community to take immediate action to halt the mass atrocities now being perpetrated by the Libyan government against its own people. The inexcusable silence cannot continue.”

The NGOs describe a grim picture: “Snipers are shooting peaceful protesters. Artillery and helicopter gunships have been used against crowds of demonstrators. Thugs armed with hammers and swords attacked families in their homes. Hospital officials report numerous victims shot in the head and chest, and one struck on the head by an anti-aircraft missile. Tanks are reported to be on the streets and crushing innocent bystanders. Witnesses report that mercenaries are shooting indiscriminately from helicopters and from the top of roofs. Women and children were seen jumping off Giuliana Bridge in Benghazi to escape. Many of them were killed by the impact of hitting the water, while others were drowned.  The Libyan regime is seeking to hide all of these crimes by shutting off contact with the outside world. Foreign journalists have been refused entry. Internet and phone lines have been cut or disrupted.”

They describe conditions and events that they say are “systematic violations” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as “crimes against humanity” as defined by the Explanatory Memorandum to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. They refer to the Responsibility to Protect commitment made by the World Summit in 2005: “Because the Libyan authorities are manifestly failing to protect their population from crimes against humanity, should peaceful means be inadequate, member states are obliged to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the UN Charter, including Chapter VII.”

There have been several other calls for limited intervention to enforce a no-fly zone. Such a zone would be designed to end airborne attacks on civilians, and also to “prevent mercenaries and weapons from being shipped in.”[iii] The Libyan Ambassador, at least one of them, joined the call – referring to “genocide.”[iv] Enforcement forces mentioned include NATO and the Egyptian Air Force.

In his Foreign Affairs blog, Marc Lynch also calls for enforcement of a non-fly zone:[v] “This is not a peaceful democracy protest movement which the United States can best help by pressuring allied regimes from above, pushing for long-term and meaningful reform, and persuading the military to refrain from violence. It’s gone well beyond that already, and this time I find myself on the side of those demanding more forceful action before it’s too late.”

In a strong appeal issued before the current Libyan crisis, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called in general for “timely and decisive” responses. “How many children,” he asked, are in places of peril today and asking: “Is the world listening? Will help arrive in time? Who will be there for me and my family?”[vi]

Who, indeed?

Later on Feb 22, two additional statements were issued.

Francis Deng and Edward Luck, the UN Secretary-General’s advisers respectively on genocide the responsibility to protect, issued a statement which said in part: “We remind national authorities in Libya, as well as in other countries facing large-scale popular protests, that the heads of State and Government at the 2005 World Summit pledged to protect populations by preventing acts of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, as well as their incitement. We join Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in urging all parties to exercise utmost restraint and to seek peaceful means of resolving their political differences.”[1]

The UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, also called for an immediate end to the human rights violations in Libya and for an independent international investigation. “The callousness with which Libyan authorities and their hired guns are reportedly shooting live rounds of ammunition at peaceful protestors is unconscionable. I am extremely worried that lives are being lost even as I speak,” Pillay said. She referred to the reported use of machine guns, snipers and military planes against demonstrators, calling such acts brazen violations of international law. “The state has an obligation to protect the rights to life, liberty and security,” she said. “Protection of civilians should always be the paramount consideration in maintaining order and the rule of law.”[2]


[i] The term is used by Mark Leon Goldberg, “The Perils of a ‘No Fly Zone’ for Libya,” 21 February 2011. A “mass atrocity” is usually defined as a minimum of 5,000 civilians killed intentionally. The Stanley Foundation, “Mass Atrocities and Armed Conflict: Links, Distinctions, and Implications for the Responsibility to Prevent, appendices to, Alex J. Bellamy, “Mass Atrocities and Armed Conflict: Links, Distinctions, and Implications for the Responsibility to Prevent,” Policy Analysis Brief, The Stanley Foundation, February 2011.

 [ii] UN Watch, 20 February 2011.

 [iii] “Calls for Libya ‘no-fly zone’,” AFROL News, 21 February 2011.

 [iv] “Libyan Envoy to Ask UN Security Council to Impose No-Fly Zone,” Bloomberg, 22 February 2011.

 [v] Marc Lynch, “Intervening in the Libyan tragedy,” Foreign Policy, 21 February 2011.

 [vi] “Secretary-General sets out broad agenda for strengthening human protection,” UN News Centre, 2 February 2011.

[1] Statement by the UN Secretary–General’s Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect on the situation in Libya, 22 February 2011.’s_Special_Advisers_on_the_Prevention_of_Genocide_and_the_Responsibility_to_Protect_on_the_Situation_in_Libya].pdf.

 [2] “Pillay calls for international inquiry into Libyan violence and justice for victims,” 22 February 2011, Office of the High Commissioner of Human rights.

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