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Civilian Protection in Libya: Putting Coercion and Controversy Back into RtoP

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 August 2011


As noted by other contributors to this roundtable, the response of the international community to civilian deaths in Libya—and the threat of further mass atrocities—is unusual in two key respects. First, Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians without the consent of the “host” state. The Council's intentions, and actions, could not be interpreted as anything other than coercive. Second, in contrast to other crises involving alleged crimes against humanity (most notably Darfur), diplomacy produced a decisive response in a relatively short period of time. Both of these features suggest that many analysts of intervention (including myself) need to revise their previously pessimistic assessments of what is possible in contemporary international politics.

Roundtable: Libya, RtoP, and Humanitarian Intervention
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2011

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1 Weiss, Thomas G., “RtoP Alive and Well after Libya,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 3 (Fall 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, p. 291.

2 For further discussion of the bargaining that took place in and around the summit, see Bellamy, Alex J., Global Politics and the Responsibility to Protect (New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 2125Google Scholar.

3 See Security Council Resolution 1674 (2006) and Security Council Resolution 1894 (2009). In some cases sections of draft Council resolutions containing the principle of RtoP were deleted due to lack of consensus on their inclusion. See Welsh, Jennifer M., “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: Where Expectations Meet Reality,” Ethics & International Affairs 24, no. 4 (Winter 2010), pp. 415–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For detailed examples of the continuing debate over meaning and use, see Bellamy, Alex J., “The Responsibility to Protect—Five Years On,” Ethics & International Affairs 24, no. 2 (Summer 2010), pp. 143–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 United Nations General Assembly, “Report of the Secretary-General: The Situation in Africa,” S/1998/318-A, April 13, 1998.

5 Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, “The Relationship between the Responsibility to Protect and the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” Policy Brief, May 9, 2011;

6 I have discussed this point more fully elsewhere. See Welsh, “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect.”

7 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001)Google Scholar, p. xiii. The three procedures set out by the commissioners were as follows: states must at least request Council authorization before acting; a resolution supporting military intervention must have at least majority support in the Council; and if the veto is used in these instances, recourse can be made to the General Assembly (under the Uniting for Peace resolution) or to regional bodies.

8 See the comments of various states during the Thematic Debate on the “Report of the Secretary-General on Implementing the Responsibility to Protect,” A/63/677, July 23, 2009.

9 “NATO Chief Urges Quick UN Deal on Libya,” Straits Times, March 17, 2011; Emphasis mine.

10 African Union, “Communiqué of the 265th Meeting of the Peace and Security Council,” PSC/PR/Comm.2 (CCLXV). The communiqué did denounce the violence in Libya as a “serious threat to peace and security” in the region and created a High-Level Committee on Libya to facilitate dialogue among the parties to the conflict.

11 Chesterman, Simon, “‘Leading from Behind’: The Responsibility to Protect, the Obama Doctrine, and Humanitarian Intervention after Libya,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 3 (Fall 2011), p. 280CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 The warrants are for alleged crimes against humanity, in relation to the crackdown following the start of antigovernment protests on February 15, 2011. Despite the Security Council's reference to breaches of international humanitarian law in Resolution 1970, the chief prosecutor has yet to find sufficient evidence that war crimes were committed.

13 Sands, Phillippe, “The ICC Arrest Warrants Will Make Colonel Gaddafi Dig in His Heels,” Guardian, May 4, 2011Google Scholar.

14 “Libya: President Obama Gives Gaddafi Ultimatum,” BBC News;

15 Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy, “Libya's Pathway to Peace,” International Herald Tribune, April 15, 2011.

16 “Forces Chief: Target Gaddafi,” Sunday Telegraph, May 15, 2011. General David Richards continued to insist that Qaddafi was not a target, but that if Qaddafi happened to be in a command and control center and was hit by NATO air raids, such an attack would be within the rules.

17 Bellamy, Alex J., “Libya and the Responsibility to Protect: The Exception and the Norm,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 3 (Fall 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, p. 267.