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Libya 2011: The Real R2P Story

Response by Gareth Evans to Amin Saikal 'Libya's Double Tragedy' in Project Syndicate, 10 July 2020

In his otherwise compelling piece on Libya, Amin Saikal repeats without qualification the proposition that Gaddafi's fall was the result of the military intervention authorised by the UN Security Council “on the basis of the ‘responsibility to protect’ the Libyan people”. In so doing he, no doubt unintentionally but very effectively, reinforces the still unhappily widespread perception that the responsibility to protect (‘R2P’) principle which was unanimously embraced by the General Assembly in 2005 is liable, at least in its extreme-case military applications, to do more harm than good.

What went wrong in Libya in 2011 was not the granting or exercise of the original mandate, invoking R2P, given by the Security Council to “take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack”. There were at the time almost universally held fears of an imminent massacre by Gaddafi forces marching on Benghazi; the resolution was not opposed; and it was immediately successfully implemented. And the operation was widely hailed at the time as the coming of age of R2P, demonstrating that with quick and robust collective action, the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica could indeed be made a thing of the past. It is impossible to know how many thousands of lives were saved in Benghazi by that initial intervention in Libya, but certainly credible to say that had the UN Security Council acted anything like as swiftly and robustly in the 1990s, 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica, and close to 800,000 men, women and children in Rwanda, would still be alive today.

Rather, what really went wrong – apart from all the other missteps after Gaddafi’s eventual overthrow to which Professor Saikal properly refers – was the determination of the United States, UK and France to transform the limited civilian protection mandate conferred by Resolution 1973 into an open-ended regime-change one, without being willing to explore alternative approaches, and without allowing any serious further debate. This was deeply resented by the ‘BRICS’ states in particular (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), all of whom happened to be on the Council at the time. Not least did it upset South Africa, which wanted to explore with Gaddafi the possibility of a ceasefire and peaceful political transition. Whatever one may have thought then, or may think now, about its likely prospects of success, It should have been given the opportunity to do so before further full-scale war-fighting action was taken.

Having talked at the time to nearly all the participants in this debate, my own strong belief is that the breakdown of Security Council consensus over the Libyan mandate was, unquestionably, the major factor in the failure of the Council to agree on any response at all – even just a condemnatory resolution – when the Syrian situation started to explode in mid-2011. The BRICS took the view, whether one regards this as too obdurate or not, that they were not going to concede an inch if there was any chance that the P3 would take that inch to run a mile. It was around this time that I heard France, the United Kingdom and United States being widely referred to around UN corridors by a new acronym: not as the ‘P3’, but as the ‘FUKUS’ group. Such were, and unhappily remain to this day, the passions on this subject.

In the fifteen years since its initial embrace at the 2005 World Summit, R2P remains work in progress. As a normative principle – that mass atrocity crimes perpetrated behind sovereign state borders are not just that state’s but the world’s business – its acceptance, as evidenced by annual General Assembly debates and scores of Security Council resolutions, is almost complete. As an effective preventive force, and as a catalyst for institutional change, it has had many identifiable successes. But as an effective reactive mechanism, when prevention has failed, the record - since the Libyan case ran off the rails in mid-2011 – has been manifestly poor, above all in Syria. In the present international environment – with China and Russia now behaving as they are – it will be a long and difficult process to recreate any kind of Security Council consensus as to how to react to the hardest of cases, when external military intervention may be required to stop a genocidal catastrophe. But the beginning of wisdom will be for the P3 to own up to all its own past misjudgements in Libya in 2011, and for the history of those watershed events to be, once and for all, fully understood.

Gareth Evans is Chair of the International Advisory Board at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect; former Australian Foreign Minister; President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group.