A New Lease on Life for Humanitarianism
In this 1994 article, Richard Betts argues that when the United States intervenes in other countries' domestic wars, it must take sides among groups to ensure someone is in charge at the end of the day. Interventions that aim to be evenhanded prevent the very peace they seek to create.
Throughout the humanitarian crises of the 1990s, the international community failed to come up with rules on how and when to intervene, and under whose authority. Despite the new focus on terrorism, these debates will not go away. The issue must be reframed as an argument not about the "right to intervene" but about the "reponsibility to protect" that all sovereign states owe to their citizens.
The United States and its coalition partners’ decision to launch Operation Odyssey Dawn to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya on March 19 was a vindication of the fragile “responsibility to protect” (RtoP) norm. The diplomatic process to build a consensus about intervention was messy, involving protracted negotiations among multiple parties, and the military outcome in Libya remains uncertain. Still, the Obama administration was correct to champion RtoP’s basic principle: state sovereignty is not a license for a dictator to murder his citizens.
When it was endorsed unanimously by heads of state at the 2005 World Summit, RtoP was the biggest challenge to state sovereignty in three and a half centuries. It makes a state’s presumed right of nonintervention contingent on its ability and willingness to protect its citizens and threatens “collective, timely, and decisive action” if it does not. Until recently, however, putting this norm into practice proved tougher than enunciating it. UN member states repeatedly failed to intervene in even the most egregious situations -- such as in Darfur, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- and left hundreds of thousands of civilians at the mercy of genocidal leaders and armed militias. Given its seeming unenforceability, RtoP risked becoming a twenty-first century version of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which “outlawed war” as an instrument of national policy.
In invoking “the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population” in UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which prompted Operation Odyssey Dawn, the Security Council has seemingly given RtoP a new lease on life. How strengthened RtoP will be depends both on how well the Libya case fits its mandate and how well the intervention turns out.
RtoP was never intended as a license to go after every misbehaving regime. It applies only to those committing mass atrocities -- genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Although there is no consensus on the body count needed to trigger RtoP, the actions and intentions of Libya’s leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi have provided ample justification. Qaddafi’s own security forces and the mercenaries he imported from Mali, Niger, Chad, and other sub-Saharan African countries have used indiscriminate force against civilians, massacring hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, Libyans. They have also committed gross violations of human rights, the laws of war, and humanitarian law, such as using live ammunition against peaceful protesters, employing civilians as human shields, and denying relief to affected populations. On February 22, Qaddafi even pledged to “cleanse Libya house by house” of antigovernment protesters. Resolution 1973 noted that these “systematic attacks against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity,” and, pursuant to a Security Council request, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), has already opened an investigation into Qaddafi’s actions.
Even in the face of atrocities, RtoP envisions military action as a last resort after diplomatic efforts and sanctions have failed. In this, too, Operation Odyssey Dawn meets RtoP’s standards. Before authorizing military intervention, the international community took numerous other steps to dissuade Qaddafi from committing further atrocities, including imposing an arms embargo, a travel ban, and an asset freeze; condemning Libya within (and ejecting it from) the UN Human Rights Council; and referring the Libyan case to the ICC. Qaddafi’s continued defiance left the Security Council with the choice between escalating military intervention and tolerating, in the words of Resolution 1973, additional “gross and systematic violations of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions.”
Of course, Qaddafi did himself no favors by promising to “have no mercy and no pity” in Benghazi, the opposition movement’s stronghold. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton correctly observed from Paris on March 19, “We have every reason to fear that, left unchecked, Qadaffi will commit unspeakable atrocities.” The dictator’s large stockpile of chemical weapons raised the stakes even further.
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