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