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Libya and the Responsibility to Protect: The Exception and the Norm

  • Alex J. Bellamy


The Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) played an important role in shaping the world's response to actual and threatened atrocities in Libya. Not least, the adoption of Resolution 1973 by the UN Security Council on May 17, 2011, approving a no-fly zone over Libya and calling for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, reflected a change in the Council's attitude toward the use of force for human protection purposes; and the role played by the UN's new Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect points toward the potential for this new capacity to identify threats of mass atrocities and to focus the UN's attention on preventing them. Given the reluctance of both the Security Council and the wider UN membership even to discuss RtoP in the years immediately following the 2005 World Summit—the High-level Plenary Meeting of the 60th Session of the General Assembly that gave birth to RtoP—these two facts suggest that significant progress has been made thanks to the astute stewardship of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is personally committed to the principle. Where it was once a term of art employed by a handful of like-minded countries, activists, and scholars, but regarded with suspicion by much of the rest of the world, RtoP has become a commonly accepted frame of reference for preventing and responding to mass atrocities.



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1 Williams, Paul D., “Briefing: The Road to Humanitarian War in Libya,” Global Responsibility to Protect (forthcoming 2011); and Paul D. Williams and Alex J. Bellamy, “Principles, Politics and Prudence: Libya and the New Politics of Humanitarian War” (unpublished paper, 2011).

2 Williams, “Briefing: The Road to Humanitarian War.”

3 “UN Human Rights Chief Pillay Calls for International Inquiry into Libyan Violence and Justice for Victims,” press statement, February 22, 2011; available at

4 United Nations Press Release, “UN Secretary-General Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, and Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, Edward Luck, on the Situation in Libya,” February 22, 2011; available at,%20Special%20Advisers%20Statement%20on%20Libya,%2022%20February%202011.pdf.

5 “Defiant Gaddafi Issues Chilling Threat,” ABC (Australia), February 23, 2011; available at

6 The Mass Atrocity Crime Watch List did not include Libya in its list of thirty-three “at risk” countries; see; nor did Barbara Harff's list of twenty-seven countries; see; Minority Rights Group International did not identify Libya among the sixty-eight countries posing a risk to minorities in 2010; see; and Libya was not an “area of concern” for the Genocide Intervention Network; see

7 Bellamy, Alex J., “The Responsibility to Protect—Five Years On,” Ethics & International Affairs 24, no. 2 (2010), pp. 143–69.

8 All quotes from S/PV.6498, March 17, 2011.

9 Ban Ki-moon, “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: Report of the Secretary-General,” UN Document A/63/677, January 12, 2009.

10 See Williams, Paul D., “Into the Mogadishu Maelstrom: The African Union Mission in Somalia,” International Peacekeeping 16, no. 4 (2009), pp. 514–30.

* Thanks to Sara E. Davies, Edward C. Luck, and Paul D. Williams for advice and helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Libya and the Responsibility to Protect: The Exception and the Norm

  • Alex J. Bellamy


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