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Did Qaddafi's End Justify the Means? How Libya Changed the Face of Humanitarian Intervention

Foreign Policy magazine roundtable with David Bosco, Micah Zenko, Gareth Evans and Kyle Matthews, 20 October 2011

Gareth Evans: Can we stop atrocities without launching an all-out war?

Libya was a textbook case for the application of the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) principle, and the U.N. Security Council resolutions in February and March, which paved the way for the military campaign, were textbook responses. After his regime's initial attacks on unarmed protesters, Muammar al-Qaddafi was first warned, censured, sanctioned, and threatened with International Criminal Court prosecution; only when it was clear, three weeks later, that neither persuasion nor nonmilitary coercion would change his course and that a civilian massacre in Benghazi was imminent was selective military action authorized. And the intervention worked -- at the very least in preventing a catastrophe in Benghazi and many more civilian casualties elsewhere than would otherwise have been the case. Equivalently quick and robust responses would have saved 8,000 lives in Srebrenica and 800,000 in Rwanda.

That's the good news. But there were also downsides to the action, on which supporters of R2P need to reflect. After the initial strike on Qaddafi's forces surrounding Benghazi, the NATO-led international forces chose to conduct much more than a watching-brief and selective-strike operation, making the judgment that only by supporting the rebels to achieve regime change could all of Libya's civilians really be protected. And in doing so they were widely seen --not just by R2P skeptics waiting to pounce -- as stretching their narrow Security Council mandate to its absolute limit, if not beyond.

For better or worse, this perception has now given Russia, China, and others an excuse to claim -- in the context of Syria, where regime violence has been if anything worse than in Libya -- that there are risks not only in authorizing, but even foreshadowing, any coercive measures at all, because it cannot be assumed that even the most slender Security Council authority will not be misused. We shouldn't see this as any big setback to the R2P norm itself -- support for it is still overwhelming, as demonstrated by a major General Assembly debate on the issue in July. But systematic and effective implementation will continue to be hard work.

Perhaps the most urgent challenge after Libya and Syria is to change the mindset that any kind of robust response is like stepping on a moving staircase with the first condemnatory step implying a willingness and determination to go all the way to full-scale coercive military force. Policymakers and publics have to be persuaded, all over again, that coercive military action is totally different from other response mechanisms and can only be countenanced in extreme and exceptional circumstances.

This cause would be much helped by getting the Security Council or General Assembly to embrace tough guidelines for the use of military force. Five criteria (seriousness of risk, right intention, last resort, proportionality, and balance of consequences) have been advocated from the start by R2P advocates, not as a guaranteed route to consensus but as an important tool for achieving it in hard cases. We lost the battle to endorse such guidelines at the 2005 World Summit. Six years later, this remains important unfinished business.


Gareth Evans is a former foreign minister of Australia, former president of the International Crisis Group, and co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which initiated the concept of the responsibility to protect. He is the author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All.


Link to article: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/18/did_qaddafis_end_justify_the_means?page=full