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29 February 2012
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Just over one year ago on 26 February 2011, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1970 following calls from regional organizations and civil society to respond to the threat of mass atrocities in Libya. The international community considered not whether to act, but how to act, as the regime of Muammar Gaddafi failed to uphold its responsibility to protect (RtoP) civilians from crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Civil society organizations from around the world were the first to label Libya an RtoP situation, and urged for decisive action to protect civilians. In addition to the above blog post, ICRtoP has created its first feature page on the ICRtoP blog. This feature page provides several perspectives from civil society organizations as ICRtoP Members assess this rapid and unprecedented action to protect civilians and the subsequent adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which called for ‘all necessary measures’ to protect the Libyan population.
Feature: Civil Society Reflects on Challenges for RtoP Post-Libya
Between 17 February and 17 March 2011, the international community faced actual and threatened mass atrocities in Libya as the regime of Muammar Gaddafi failed to uphold its responsibility to protect (RtoP) civilians from crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Widespread human rights abuses were committed by Gaddafi’s regime in response to early protests, including indiscriminate killings, arbitrary arrests, and systematic torture. On 22 February 2011, the former Libyan leader broadcasted his intent to commit further violence against civilians in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, which had fallen under the control of protesters and rebels.
As the crackdown persisted in March, the international community responded to the dire situation in Libya in an early and unprecedented manner, implementing robust, multilateral action to protect civilians.
Civil society organizations from around the world were the first to label Libya an RtoP situation, and urged for decisive action to protect civilians.
Individual states enacted sanctions, asset freezes, and travel bans. Regional organizations such as the League of Arab States (LAS), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the African Union (AU) appealed for restraint. The European Union (EU) also enacted sweeping sanctions.
On 26 February 2011, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed Resolution 1970. The Resolution condemned the crackdown and urged an end to human rights violations, referring the situation to the International Criminal Court, imposing an arms embargo, assets freeze, travel bans, and establishing a new sanctions committee. Just days later, at the behest of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly suspended Libya from the UN rights body.
Still, Gaddafi’s security services and mercenaries continued to attack civilians. Aircraft, tanks, and artillery were reportedly used against protesters. It became increasingly clear that the non-military measures imposed by individual states, regional organizations, and the UNSC were insufficient to respond to the situation.
Following calls to establish a no-fly zone (NFZ) by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the LAS, and with strong support from a multitude of individual Member States, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 on 17 March 2011. The Resolution approved a no-fly zone over Libya, and authorized Member States, in cooperation with the Secretary-General of the UN, to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat.
With 10 votes in favour and 5 abstentions (Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Germany), the Resolution was hailed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as an historic affirmation of the international community’s “determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government.”
It was at the Security Council meeting, when the use of force to protect civilians in Libya was authorized, however, where discord over the operation began.
The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries favoured a peaceful settlement to the crisis, and warned of the perils of armed intervention. The African Union also proposed a roadmap for peace in Libya, which stood resolutely opposed to foreign intervention in the country.
As a Coalition of international actors - led first by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, and then transferred under the operational control of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) - moved to establish the NFZ and naval blockade, the manner in which the civilian protection mission unfolded would exacerbate diplomatic tensions further.
After an intense start to the operation, with the US, France, and the UK conducting considerable military strikes from warships and combat aircraft against assets of the Gaddafi regime that were threatening civilians, months of vicious civil war ensued. Anti-Gaddafi rebels, with the assistance of the NATO-led Coalition, battled pro-Gaddafi elements to a stalemate for control of the country.
The fighting often led to catastrophic consequences for Libyan civilians, and allegations of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity by both sides were widely documented as the battle raged on. Human Rights Watch urged that as the civil war continued, all sides, including the NATO-led Coalition, had an obligation to protect civilians.
The deadlock would slowly be broken from August to October 2011, as rebel forces, with the Coalition’s assistance, made considerable gains against pro-Gaddafi elements. After Tripoli was taken by the rebels, the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte fell. It was outside of Sirte on 20 October - eight months after the revolution began - where Colonel Muammar Gaddafi would be captured and killed by rebel forces, with NATO airpower playing a role in preventing the former Libyan leaders’ convoy from fleeing.
The circumstances around the dictator’s death were troubling, leading the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International to raise suspicions that a war crime was committed.
It was a violent end to the old Libya, which the National Transitional Council (NTC), the now-ruling provisional authority, declared liberated after Gaddafi’s death.
Upon the death of the Libyan dictator, NATO moved to formally end its military involvement on 31 October 2011, days after the UN Security Council voted to end the authorization of the NFZ on 27 October.
Challenges for RtoP Arise as Mission Ends, Transition Begins
As international military involvement ended in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s death, the uncertain transition began under the internationally supported and relatively organized NTC, which had formed as the official opposition on 27 February 2011.
Four months on, the provisionally-ruling NTC has been unable to rein in roving, heavily-armed militias. Lacking a strong central governing authority and no effective justice system, human rights abuses are allegedly widespread.
Beyond the concerns surrounding Libya’s transition, substantive challenges for the Responsibility to Protect have arisen in the aftermath of the UN-mandated, NATO-led operation.
Allegations of Civilian Casualties from NATO Actions
While touted as a successful operation by UN and NATO officials, allegations of civilian casualties have been raised, which have further embroiled the mission in controversy.
During the conflict, Amnesty International raised concerns over NATO airstrikes that had allegedly killed Libyan civilians, and urged the organization to investigate all instances of reported civilian deaths.
These calls have been reinforced by civil society organizations, like Human Rights Watch, in the aftermath of the conflict. NATO Watch, an independent virtual think-tank that researches and analyzes the organization and its actions, has called for an independent inquiry into the operation, a key question of which would be how many – civilians and combatants - were killed in NATO sorties in Libya over the course of its involvement.
While NATO has yet to conduct any formal inquiry, according to a November 2011 report of the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Louis Moreno-Ocampo, the Court will take up reports of civilian casualties in its investigation into the situation. The seriousness of these allegations merits such action by the ICC in order to ensure, through an independent forum, that they are thoroughly investigated.
Addressing these allegations is important within the RtoP framework, as the Coalition’s actions, including reports of civilian casualties, have fueled concerns expressed by a number of countries regarding the overall manner in which the use of force was implemented to protect civilians.
Concerns Over the Use of Force to Protect Civilians in Libya
The manner in which NATO and its allies enforced the UN mandate in Libya has led to vocalized concerns from Russia, China, Brazil, India, and other states. Specifically, these countries have charged that the UN’s mandate in Libya was overstepped, with the Coalition actively pursuing regime change instead of civilian protection. More generally, they have expressed unease with the use of force to protect civilians under the RtoP framework.
Reflective of the disquiet of these countries over the mandate overstep in Libya, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Hardeep Puri, stated on 22 February 2012 that, “Libya has given RtoP a bad name”. The Indian Ambassador went further, criticizing “over-enthusiastic” members of the international community for misusing Resolution 1973”, and stated that their only interest was the, “use of all necessary means to bomb the hell out of Libya” in the pursuit of regime change.
Channeling concerns with the use of force, the Brazilian government has proposed ‘responsibility while protecting’ (RwP) to reassess the manner in which a military response is implemented to protect civilians. The concept has attracted considerable international interest, and was discussed at an informal dialogue convened by the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the UN on 21 February 2012. RwP will likely continue to shape debate on RtoP both inside and outside the halls of the United Nations, particularly as the international community grapples with challenges post-Libya at this years’ General Assembly dialogue on response measures within the third pillar of the RtoP framework.
Implications for Syria
Along with generating frank debate within and outside of the United Nations, the blowback from the Libya operation has also carried unintended consequences for civilians suffering brutality at the hands of their own governments elsewhere.
As we’ve documented in previous posts on our blog on the situation in Syria, all of the BRICS countries cited the overstep in Libya in registering their opposition to a military response to the nearly year-long brutal crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad.
Ensuring a Libya-style intervention does not occur in Syria has been also been one of the points raised in recent UNSC deliberations on the situation by Russia and China, who have twice employed their vetoes to strike down resolutions on the crisis.
As the international community continues to search for a lasting solution to the crisis in Syria, Libya’s shadow has certainly loomed large in the debate, with very real implications for civilians on the ground.
Civil Society Reflects on Challenges for RtoP Post-Libya
(…) Triggered by the operation in Libya, the concerns over the manner in which the use of force is implemented to protect civilians will certainly continue to shape RtoP, both in the context of the debate surrounding the norm and the manner in which it is employed to respond to given country specific-situations like Syria.
To better understand the challenges posed for RtoP, we asked a few ICRtoP Member organizations from throughout the world to reflect and provide insight on the following questions:
♦ Was the UN-mandated, NATO-led operation in Libya a step forward or a setback for the norm? What implications - positive and/or negative - does the Libya operation carry for RtoP moving forward?
♦ What are the responsibilities of the international community as Libya transitions into the post-Gaddafi era? Despite the ending of the NATO mandate in Libya today, should the international community continue to play a role in civilian protection?
♦ Through an RtoP lens, what lessons can be learned from Libya for future cases where international action - whether non-coercive or coercive - is necessary to protect civilians?
The enlightening responses we received drew on the individual expertise of these ICRtoP Members, and brought in unique regional perspectives as well. We encourage you to read these civil society reflections on RtoP post-Libya:
Excerpt from the response from Rachel Gerber, Program Officer at The Stanley Foundation:
In terms of long-term norm development, how the international community addresses these questions will likely prove much more important than the operation that raised them. If this moment is seized as one to proactively consider the Libya experience and debate means and methods in a way that builds consensus and refines understanding of RtoP practice and application, it has the potential to be mobilized as a significant leap forward for the concept. If these areas of contention are left unaddressed, they are likely to fester, becoming further entrenched and potentially debilitating for RtoP. Read more.
Excerpt from the response crafted by Gus Miclat, Executive Director of Initiatives for International Dialogue:
The international community must ensure the democratic transition and transformation of Libya by seeing to it that all domestic actors - including those in the previous regime- are assured of their rights to participate in this transformation. Initially, the rule of law must be paramount; it should clearly assure the civilians - including those again who are supporters of the ousted regime - are protected from violent reprisals, kangaroo trials and the like. It should also ensure that those who perpetrated crimes- including those of the victorious militias and former rebels- are. Read more.
Excerpt of the response from Jillian Siskind, President of Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights:
First, it is questionable whether the protection of civilians was the foremost concern of NATO, which appeared focused on regime change. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it demonstrated a real risk with a military intervention without civil society support or a civilian plan to allow for a safer society once the hostilities were over. Read more.
Excerpt of the response written by Sarah Teitt, Outreach Director and China Programme Coordinator for the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect:
The lasting impact on the normative development of RtoP can only be positive if the UN faces head on the critiques of the intervention--whether it was too hasty (what evidence is needed to establish credible threat of atrocities), whether NATO's action exceeded the UN mandate (how should the Security Council oversee its protection mandates to ensure that they are not a pretext for regime change), and whether there were grave breaches of international humanitarian law on both sides. Read more.
Excerpt from Assessing Libya, by Dr. Robert Zuber of Global Action to Prevent War:
To our mind, the mission evolved in ways that were somewhat expedient for the implementing powers but that did not elevate confidence that the international system yet has what it takes to provide even-handed, mandate-driven, last-resort responses to the threat of mass atrocities. Read more.
For our analysis on the impact of action in Libya on RtoP, please see the ICRtoP educational tool on the international response to the crisis.
For a full overview of the situation in Libya, please see our Libya Crisis Page, which includes a list of civil society statements on RtoP in the context of the situation in Libya, as well as the debate surrounding the intervention.
To read the full feature, see here.
International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect