Did R2P Conditions Prevail in Libya?

Was Libya on the verge of a major bloodbath in mid-March when the UN Security Council authorized intervention?[i] Or were the warnings of imminent mass atrocities simply part of the hype to justify military intervention by states looking for an excuse to attack the regime of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi?

The “responsibility to protect” doctrine (R2P) proposes UN Chapter VII interventions, including military, to protect civilians when “national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”[ii]

The formal doctrine makes no reference to the magnitude of existing or threatened war crimes or crimes against humanity, but the conventional understanding, as shaped by the earlier report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, is that to warrant military intervention these would have to be mass violations involving “large scale loss of life, actual or apprehended.”[iii]

That the regime of Col. Gadhafi was failing in its duty to protect its citizens is not in question, but whether it was of a magnitude that reached the “large scale” threshold and that demanded immediate intervention to protect vulnerable civilians is now increasingly debated.

One editorialist draws on a Human Rights Watch report that says the Gadhafi forces in Misrata in the west have not been targeting civilians – and concludes therefore that an attack on Benghazi, the prospect that was galvanizing international concern, would not have targeted civilians.[iv] Of course, that was not the tenor of the threat from Col. Gadhafi at the time. On March 18, with Gadhafi forces closing in on Benghazi he promised an attack without mercy, calling those who opposed him dogs and rats.[v] His threat was given urgency by reports of attacks on civilians, many by hired mercenaries, already taking place in Government-controlled areas.

But the sceptics include Richard Falk, the highly respected international law expert and human rights advocate and the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, who recently wrote that “evidence” in support of the “prospect of dire bloodletting was never present much beyond the bombast of the dictator.”[vi]

On the other hand, both Human Rights Watch and the New York Times now report that attacks on civilians, including with cluster bombs and other munitions fired into civilian neighbourhoods, are a prominent feature of Government attacks on Misrata.[vii] At least 260 people have died there, with another 1,000 injured.[viii]

Estimates of overall deaths of combatants and civilians since the protests began in mid-February must now be put in the 4,000-plus range.[ix] Without any external intervention, those numbers could have more than doubled, with the possibility of Gadhafi back in full control of Libya and, with the UN having given intervention a pass, implementing a reign of terror and reprisal.

That is all speculation, of course, but it is the kind of scenario that the UN Security Council was facing – which explains why even those states with the greatest reluctance to intervene did not block the action. China and Russia each registered an abstention rather than a veto, emphasizing that none of the major powers wanted to risk being on the sidelines in the midst of the campaign of atrocities that was possibly coming.

The really high numbers apply to internally displaced persons and refugees. The UN is unable to estimate the number of displaced in the West of Libya because the UNHCR does not have access there. In the East, the UNHCR says it has staff in the cities of Tobruk and Benghazi that have identified at least 35,000 displaced people, mostly from Ajdabiyya and Brega – with a spokesperson saying it is likely to be around 100,000, since the population of Ajdabiyya is 120,000 and most people are thought to have left. UNHCR also estimates that more than 500,000 have fled Libya for Egypt, Tunisia, Niger, Algeria, Chad, Italy, Malta and Sudan.[x]

For some who oppose the intervention the question of magnitude is not particularly relevant because they oppose military interventions, period, and view R2P as just one more pretext for the powerful to invade the weak. For most, however, the question of magnitude is key. The numbers compared with Rwanda are small, but compared with most contemporary wars they are huge – for example, the annual war dead in Afghanistan, combatants and civilians, are estimated by the UN to have been 2,777 in 2010, with another 4,343 injuries.[xi] The WHO estimate of 2000 deaths by early March, before the intervention, reflected a combat death rate ten times that of Afghanistan.

The definition of “large scale” is not precise, but it obviously implies more than isolated incidents. Just as obviously, Rwanda is not the standard. By any count, 4,000 dead and more than half a million people driven from their homes over little more than a 2 month period qualifies as “large scale.” There can still be credible reasons for opposing the intervention, and certainly reasons to be critical of the way the intervention has been managed and is evolving, but there is no reasonable argument that the conditions in Libya did not meet the threshold for an R2P intervention.



[i] UN Security Council Resolution S/RES/1973, 17 March 2011. http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/268/39/PDF/N1126839.pdf?OpenElement.

[ii] General Assembly Resolution A/RES/60/1 (2005), paragraph 139.

[iii] The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Soverereignty,  December 2001, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa.

[iv] Alan J. Kuperman, “False pretense for war in Libya?” The Boston Globe, 14 April 2011. http://articles.boston.com/2011-04-14/bostonglobe/29418371_1_rebel-stronghold-civilians-rebel-positions.

[v] Maria Golovnina and Patrick Worsnip, “Gadhafi promises ‘no mercy’ unless rebels quit: Libyan leader warns foreign powers any attacks will prompt swift response, Montreal Gazette, 18 March 2011, Reuters. http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/Gadhafi+promises+mercy+unless+rebels+quit/4461338/story.html#ixzz1JpOS8UcT.

[vi] Richard Falk, “Obama’s Libyan folly,” Aljazeera, 4 April 2011. http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/04/20114410410950151.html.

[vii] C.J. Chivers, “Qaddafi Troops Fire Cluster Bombs Into Civilian Areas,” New York Times, 15 April 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/16/world/africa/16libya.html.

[viii] “Mideast Notebook,” Toronto Star, 17 April 2011.

[ix] Robin Collins, in an April 14 email report on wikipedia’s tally of deaths – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_2011_Libyan_civil_war. “Based on the numbers, 1,694-2,224 opposition members/fighters (which includes also civilian supporters) and 757-830 Gaddafi loyalists have been killed by April 9, 2011, for a total of 2,451-3,054 reported deaths, of which some have not been independently confirmed….” Robin indicates these numbers are roughly in line with World Health Organization estimates of 2,000 deaths by early March and International Federation of Human Rights estimate of 3,000 deaths also by early March, or just three weeks into the crisis. Given the ongoing fighting since March, the number of dead could reasonably be expected to be twice those amounts.

[x] “Libya: UN warns funding shortfall could slow aid effort for victims of conflict,” The UN News Centre, 15 April 2011. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=38122&Cr=libya&Cr1=.

[xi] “The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security: Report of the Secretary-General,” A/65/783–S/2011/120, 9 March 2011. http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/250/34/PDF/N1125034.pdf?OpenElement.

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