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“Leading from Behind”: The Responsibility to Protect, the Obama Doctrine, and Humanitarian Intervention after Libya

  • Simon Chesterman

Humanitarian intervention has always been more popular in theory than in practice. In the face of unspeakable acts, the desire to do something, anything, is understandable. States have tended to be reluctant to act on such desires, however, leading to the present situation in which there are scores of books and countless articles articulating the contours of a right—or even an obligation—of humanitarian intervention, while the number of cases that might be cited as models of what is being advocated can be counted on one hand.

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1 Security Council Resolution 794 (1992); and Security Council Resolution (hereafter SC Res) 819 (1993).

2 See Bellamy, Alex J., “Libya and the Responsibility to Protect: The Exception and the Norm,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 3 (Fall 2011), pp. 263–64

3 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001); See Weiss, Thomas G., “RtoP Alive and Well After Libya,” Ethics & International Affairs 25, no. 3 (Fall 2011), p. 288.

4 UN General Assembly, “2005 World Summit Outcome Document,” UN Doc A/RES/60/1 (September 16, 2005), paras. 138–39; Compare Weiss, Thomas G., Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), pp. 88118; and Bellamy, Alex J., Responsibility to Protect: The Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities (Cambridge: Polity, 2009), pp. 6697.

5 SC Res 1973 (2011), preamble (emphasis added). Compare SC Res 1790 (2011), preamble.

6 Probably the first use of RtoP strictu sensu was in relation to Sudan's responsibilities in Darfur: SC Res 1564 (2004), preamble. In a resolution on the Great Lakes Region, the Council underscored that “governments in the region have a primary responsibility to protect their populations”: SC Res 1653 (2006), para. 10.

7 SC Res 1674 (2006), para. 4; SC Res 1894 (2009), preamble.

8 SC Res 1393 (2002), para. 11; SC Res 1427 (2002), para. 12; SC Res 1467 (2003), para. 14; SC Res 1494 (2003), para. 15; SC Res 1524 (2004), para. 16; SC Res 1554 (2004), para. 16; SC Res 1582 (2005), para. 18; and SC Res 1615 (2005), para. 19.

9 See generally Chesterman, Simon, Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law, Oxford Monographs in International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

10 See UK House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report: “Kosovo, Minutes of Evidence,” Volume II, HC 28-II, January 18, 2000, Question 178 (Professor Adam Roberts);

11 Deutscher Bundestag, Plenarprotokoll 13/248, October 16, 1998, 23129. See also Simma, Bruno, “NATO, the UN and the Use of Force: Legal Aspects,” European Journal of International Law 10 (1999), p. 22.

12 U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Press Conference with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Singapore, July 26, 1999;

13 See, e.g., UK Parliamentary Debates, Commons, April 26, 1999, col. 30 (Prime Minister Blair). Compare Colin Brown, “Blair's Vision of Global Police,” Independent, April 23, 1999. This was consistent with the more sophisticated UK statements on the legal issues. See, e.g., UK Parliamentary Debates, Lords, November 16, 1998, WA 140 (Baroness Symons); reaffirmed in UK Parliamentary Debates, Lords, May 6, 1999, col. 904 (Baroness Symons); and UK House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report: “Kosovo”, May 23, 2000, para. 132; (concluding that “at the very least, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention has a tenuous basis in current international customary law, and that this renders NATO action legally questionable”).

14 Legality of Use of Force Case (Provisional Measures) (ICJ, 1999), pleadings of Belgium, 10 May 1999, CR 99/15 (uncorrected translation).

15 Independent International Commission on Kosovo, The Kosovo Report (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 4.

16 ICISS, The Responsibility to Protect, para. 6.37.

17 Compare Welsh, Jennifer M., “Humanitarian Intervention After September 11,” in Welsh, Jennifer M., ed., Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Tzanakopoulos, Antonios, Disobeying the Security Council: Countermeasures Against Wrongful Sanctions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

18 Orford, Anne, International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 2227.

19 UN Charter, art. 99.

20 Evans, Gareth, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2008), pp. 4651.

21 Compare James Pattison, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: Who Should Intervene? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 247–50.

22 Cooper, Helene and Myers, Steven Lee, “Shift by Clinton Helped Persuade President to Take a Harder Line,” New York Times, March 19, 2011.

23 Susan E. Rice, “Respect for International Humanitarian Law” (UN Security Council, New York, January 29, 2009);

24 Power, Samantha, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

25 Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya” (National Defense University, Washington, D.C., March 28, 2011);

26 “The Birth of an Obama Doctrine,” Economist, March 28, 2011.

27 See, e.g., Meckler, Laura and Entous, Adam, “Obama Defends Libya Fight—President Says Massacre Prevented,” Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2011; and Krauthammer, Charles, “The Obama Doctrine: Leading from Behind,” Washington Post, April 29, 2011.

28 Erlanger, Steven and Schmitt, Eric, “NATO Set to Take Full Command of Libyan Campaign,” New York Times, March 25, 2011.

29 Lizza, Ryan, “The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama's Foreign Policy,” New Yorker, May 2, 2011.

30 Compare Seybolt, Taylor B., Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Conditions for Success and Failure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

31 Chivers, C. J., “Libyan Rebels Don't Really Add Up to an Army,” New York Times, April 7, 2011.

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
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