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Libyan Operation Spurs Debate On Limits To Intervention

  • Charles Recknagel

A Canadian military plane involved in the international operation to protect civilians in Libya

A Canadian military plane involved in the international operation to protect civilians in Libya

Everyone wants to put a label on the Libya operation. Some call it humanitarian intervention. Some call it imperialism.

As NATO bombs fall on Libya, each day seems to bring a new voice decrying the UN-approved intervention.

One of the loudest is Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Speaking on March 21 in Tehran, he told NATO: "They [the rebels] are being bombed. You should have helped them, given them arms, given them facilities, given them antiaircraft batteries. Instead of this, you waited for a month and watched the murder of a nation. Now you want to enter. So, you didn't come in to defend the people. You are after oil in Libya."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ruffled some feathers by likening the Libyan operation to a "crusade."
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, too, is questioning what the United Nations and NATO are doing. He agrees that Qaddafi's government fell short of democracy but says that does not justify military intervention.

"It actually resembles medieval calls for crusades when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it," he said on March 21.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tried to take some of the sting out of Putin's words by saying it was unacceptable "to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as 'crusades' and so on." But the damage control did not change Putin's criticism or the fact that Moscow abstained when the UN Security Council voted for the Libya mission on March 17.

China, which also abstained, seems increasingly uneasy with the intervention, too. On March 22, Beijing accused the West of causing civilian casualties in Libya and called for an immediate ceasefire.

And even one NATO member, Turkey, has directly criticized the foreign intervention in Libya. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on March 22: "We are making efforts to make sure that the change in Libya takes place without more casualties. We tried to prevent chaos and fratricide. We want Libya to resolve its internal matters without foreign intervention. The change in Libya should be brought by Libya's internal dynamics."

Amid such criticism, proponents of the Libya operation defend the strikes as an urgent "humanitarian intervention." If the UN had not authorized states to take "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians from attacks, they say, the world would have abetted a dictator's atrocities.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposes the Libyan intervention.
"There were sanctions, there was an asset freeze, referral [of Muammar Qaddafi] to the International Criminal Court," said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser for Human Rights Watch, on March 21. " Every nonmilitary option had been taken here, and so the governments and the UN were faced with intervening militarily to protect civilians."

Right To Intervene?


If the divide between those who defend the Libya operation and those who criticize it sounds wide, it is. At the heart of the quarrel is one of the most challenging questions in foreign affairs. That is, when does one state have the right to intervene by force in the affairs of another?

Those who justify the Libyan intervention on humanitarian grounds draw much of their logic from a concept which has dramatically gained ground over recent decades. The concept is known as "R2P," shorthand for the world's "Responsibility to Protect" civilians.

The concept of protecting civilians is rooted in the memory of the Holocaust and in the modern genocides of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Darfur. It received broad global support in September 2005, when more than 150 heads of state and government meeting for the opening of the UN General Assembly agreed they not only share the responsibility to react to genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity but also to prevent them.

Backers of R2P argue that prevention of atrocities can be achieved by diplomatic, legal, and political measures, including the possibility of economic sanctions. But they also believe military intervention is sometimes a necessary last resort.

One strong voice for R2P is Samantha Power, an influential staff member of U.S. President Barack Obama's National Security Council. She pragmatically summed up the all-options philosophy at an international symposium on Preventing Genocide and Mass Atrocities held at the Shoah Memorial in Paris last November. "If mass atrocity and genocide were easy to eradicate, people of goodwill would have done so long ago."

Power, who immigrated to the United State from Ireland in 1979, began her career by covering the Balkan Wars, then studied international law and won the Pulitzer Prize for her book “A Problem from Hell,” which studied U.S. foreign policy responses to genocide. She currently teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Ulterior Motives

But while R2P has gained ground in recent years, states differ greatly over when and how military intervention should be used. And that leads to states accusing each other of ulterior motives.

A family member of a Srebrenica massacre victim mourns at the memorial in Potocari, Bosnia: Never again?
Shahshank Joshi, an associate fellow and regional expert at London's Royal United Services Institute, notes that one reason passions are high over the Libya operation is that it follows two other Western interventions in the Muslim world within the past 10 years, Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Even if states have accepted [that] sovereignty can't be used as a shield behind which civilians are attacked...they have seen over the past 10 years two interventions, both of which had at least partially ostensibly humanitarian intentions," Joshi says.

He notes that both of those interventions later had unforeseen consequences, including a near civil war in Iraq and the resurgence of the Taliban and opium trade in Afghanistan, making the efficacy of the interventions a subject of huge debate.

At the same time, the fact a full third of the UN Security Council members abstained from the vote on Libya may also reflect worries among many countries that R2P could become a license one day to intervene in their own affairs as well.

Russia, China, India -- three powerful states that have faced or still face insurgencies or separatist movements and refuse even outside diplomatic intervention -- all abstained.

"If the responsibility to protect mutates into a sort of license for Western powers to intervene into what they consider their internal affairs or limit their ability to use what they see as legitimate force against armed movements or semi-armed movements that use violence and intimidation, that would be of considerable concern to them," Joshi says.

Avoiding A 'Kosovo'

Russia, China, and India all nervously watched or opposed NATO's intervention in Kosovo, which led first to a protectorate and ultimately to the partition of Serbia. That is a fate that they -- as former empires -- very much want to avoid themselves.

If some countries fear R2P could become a license for Western intervention -- and only Western powers today have the ability to project military power across the globe -- other countries have other concerns. Germany abstained from the Security Council vote because it did not want to go down the often slippery slope between humanitarian intervention and military intervention. Germany is already involved in a domestically unpopular mission in northern Afghanistan.

Nor are the fears of a slippery slope limited to Germany. Many policymakers throughout the West puzzle over whether being ready to intervene militarily to protect civilians is too open-ended a concept to be a basis for foreign policy. How can one selectively intervene, for example, in Libya but not in other crises -- such as Bahrain, the Ivory Coast, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- without leaving oneself open to attacks of acting only out of self-interest?

But if intervening to protect civilians forces the world to make tough choices, does that mean countries should give up trying to halt atrocities? Many say that would be the worst choice of all.

"Just because we can't intervene everywhere doesn't mean we have to intervene nowhere," Joshi says. "So, there is still scope for making these judgments with a combination of both humanitarian and strategic concerns and prudential concerns, and there is no reason why we can't achieve some sort of balance between these when we formulate foreign policy."

It's a difficult balance to achieve, indeed. But as the UN-approved Libyan operation continues, it is clear the intervention is ultimately as much about trying to define when states should step in to protect civilians in another country as it is specifically about protecting Libyans from Muammar Qaddafi.

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