Are R2P interventions as inconsistent as the critics charge?

Why Libya and not Zimbabwe, or Somalia, or Bahrain? Are decisions on the responsibility to protect made according to clear criteria and principles, or is the doctrine invoked only to advance big power interests?

The first thing that must be said is that these are early days for the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) norm. That means its application will become more consistent only with time, with the accumulation of experience, and with difficulty. After all, the enforcement of international norms that have attained the status of law, notably international human rights and humanitarian law, also tends to fall well short of the consistency we expect of domestic law enforcement.

R2P is a new norm that calls first for a range of non-military measures to protect the vulnerable. This particular norm is confined to preventing and stopping a limited and specified range of crimes – all of which involve mass killings and/or displacements – namely, genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. It obliges the international community to intervene under Chapter VI (non-coercive, peaceful means) to try to prevent these crimes where they appear imminent.

In the context of crises where there is escalating political violence, where mass crimes are an immediate threat or are already underway, the R2P doctrine calls for (but does not oblige) coercive action under Chapter VII to protect civilians from such crimes – when, and this is critical, there is a reasonable prospect that a military intervention will save lives and further stability.

R2P therefore includes provision for military enforcement without there being any real or proven experience, much less a tested body of tactics and rules of engagement, for the resort to multilateral force to protect vulnerable people in contexts of growing violence and repression – where the objective is the protection of people, not the overthrow of a government.[i] The UN of course has accumulated vast and relevant experience through peace support operations (e.g. the importance of linking military operations to intensive peace diplomacy), but in emergency protection operations, the multi-dimensional and comprehensive approach that characterizes UN-led peace support missions is unlikely to be available at the outset.

Without the benefit of collective experience in protecting civilians in complex political crises, there is to date in fact little collective confidence that direct interventions can be undertaken with credible assurances that they won’t make a situation worse or that a positive end will emerge within a time frame that is politically sustainable. As a result, the Security Council has been very reluctant to authorize intervention.

At the same time, all such reluctance and uncertainty must be weighed against the urgent need to come to the aid of populations in grave peril – against the apparent certainty in particular instances that without intervention large numbers of civilians will die, if not through genocidal attacks, then by war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is a dilemma that is so daunting that to date there has been only one clear UN Security Council decision to invoke the R2P doctrine – and it is the many vulnerable civilians, not the cautious politicians and generals, that pay the price of inaction (just as they pay the price for misguided action).

The only specific R2P case to date is, of course, Libya – a decision that saw two permanent members of the Security Council abstain on the vote, though they still showed basic support for the resolution by foregoing their veto option.

Though reluctant, the international community’s appeal to the R2P doctrine in response to recent upheavals throughout the Arab world has in fact not been marked by inconsistency and uncertainty. There may be plenty of uncertainty about how best to respond in general to the dramatic political developments in the region, but on the question of how the principle of R2P might apply there has actually been clarity.

Given the understanding that the international community should over-ride national sovereignty to protect vulnerable people only in cases threatening large-scale crimes and loss of life, the international community has been rather disciplined in applying the R2P doctrine to recent events in the Arab world, confining it to the only case in which the levels of suffering and vulnerability can be said to have reached an R2P threshold.   

Look at the non-Libyan cases. In none of these cases was R2P invoked, because none involved or immediately threatened large scale attacks on civilians. All of the cases are of great relevance and concern to the international community because they did and do all involve egregious violations of the rights of people, but R2P was correctly deemed not to be the relevant doctrine to shape an appropriate response.

In Egypt the death toll reached almost 400,[ii] but in a political context that was not spiralling out of control but was stabilizing. In Tunisia the death toll was under 100[iii] and after initial resistance, the Government soon fell and the situation began to stabilize. In Yemen the clashes continue and at least 115 people have died (including more than 30 children, according to UNICEF).[iv] There are real fears of escalation, but so far it has not reached or threatened to reach a magnitude to warrant consideration of an R2P-based intervention. In Bahrain a vicious Saudi-backed government response to protests has left more than 30 dead, some 300 hundred arrested, with reports of severe abuses against detainees.[v] In Syria rights group say more than 200 have been killed.[vi] In Algeria, with a population mindful of the mass killings in the 1990s, the protests have to date remained localized, with few reports of casualties.[vii]

These are all serious crises, but on questions of principle and practical capacity, direct coercive intervention as considered under R2P is clearly not warranted.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is obviously not a reflection of the “Arab spring” uprisings, but it is surely legitimate to ask the question – if intervention is warranted in Libya, why not Israel-Palestine? The long-standing conflict there has severe ongoing consequences for civilians. Estimates of direct conflict deaths vary, but in 2008 and 2009 they reached 1,000 – 2,000 each year.[viii] These are numbers that approach a definition of “large scale,” and crimes against humanity are clearly involved. It is, however, a conflict that has defied decades of peace-making efforts and continues in a destructive stalemate – one that demands ceaseless efforts toward resolution. But it seems highly unlikely that anyone could posit a credible military intervention scenario that would prevent further crimes, save lives, and de-escalate the conflict. The practicality of the matter is that such an intervention will not be proposed or considered and will not happen.

In Libya the circumstances were very different from all others in the region: well over two thousand people had been killed in a matter of weeks; the situation was escalating rapidly and no indication that the pace of violence would ease; the Government was threatening increased attacks, especially airborne attacks, on rebels and civilians in Benghazi and other rebel-held areas; and implementation of a no-fly zone was feasible and had the support of many in the region.[ix] Hence the international community acted in a timely and initially effective manner, and there can be little doubt that many lives were spared as a result. Whether those managing the intervention have a credible longer-term plan is another important question – for another time.

In the meantime, it is important to emphasize again that the R2P doctrine does not address every human rights violation or abuse of power, even when these are very serious, and it certainly does not empower or establish an obligation on the international community to respond by over-riding the offending state’s sovereignty and intervening with Chapter VII coercion. R2P calls forth action to prevent mass attacks or large scale violations involving genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity. That doesn’t mean lesser violations are to be ignored – they must also be the focus of collective action in all the ways that the international community has developed to address human rights violations.

R2P is a fledgling doctrine. Its application in the context of the “Arab spring” has been cautious and in accord with the General Assembly’s 2005 articulation of the doctrine and the Security Council’s subsequent adoption of it. The final outcome of its application in Libya remains uncertain; but we can’t forget that the outcome of inaction was reasonably certain. The international community was right to act to at least prevent that certainty.


[i] The 2001 ICISS report says: “the operation is not a war to defeat a state but an operation to protect populations in that state from being harassed, persecuted or killed.” (p. 63)

[ii] Wikipedia listed 384 deaths as of February 11.

[iii] BBC reported that as of January 19, five days after former President Ben Ali stepped down, the Government reported that 78 had been killed in the protests.

[iv] “UNICEF Alarmed by Increasing Child Casualties,” 9 April 2011.

“Yemeni troops ‘open fire on protesters’,” 17 April 2011, Aljazeera.

[v] Barbara Surk, “Bahrain: Gulf troops to stay as counter to Iran,” Associated Press, 18 April 2011, Huffington Post.

“Bahrain: Free Prominent Opposition Activist,” Human Rights Watch, 9 April 2011.

[vi] Borzou Daragahi, “Defiant crowds mourn slain Syrian protesters,” Los Angeles Times, 18 April 2011.,0,3343661.story.

“Syria ‘lifts emergency law’, Aljazeera, 19 April 2011.

[vii] Lamine Chikhi and Christian Lowe, “Algeria protests challenge president’s authority,” Reuters, 14 April 2011.

[viii] Armed Conflicts Report, Project Ploughshares,

[ix] See references at: “Did R2P Conditions Prevail in Libya?” Disarming Conflict, 18 April 2011.

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