Building a Civilian Protection Regime

Responsibility to Protect: the peril and the promise of humanitarian intervention.


Raphael Lemkin. Photo Credit: Yale University Manuscripts and ArchivesWE ARE once again stuck in the same frustrating debate about humanitarian intervention.   The interventionists argue that the international community had a clear moral imperative to stop an imminent attack on civilian populations in Benghazi.  Opponents claim that there are no strategic interests, no clear exit strategy, and no clear idea that the rebels will be better than Qaddafi.  Many also wonder about the motive of western intervention because the U.S. and its allies are not intervening in a host of other countries – why Libya and not Bahrain, or Yemen, or Ivory Coast.

The problem of course is that both sides are right -- and it reveals that we still have long way to go in developing an international doctrine and norm capable of protecting civilian populations from mass atrocities. 

First, by almost all accounts, there was a significant consensus that we were on the verge of a major attack and slaughter of civilian populations in Benghazi.  In his 28 March speech to the nation (and to the world) President Obama announced “as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”  The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Arab League, the United Nations Security Council, the International Crisis Group, and several major international human rights all had similar assessments of the imminent danger to civilians in Libya.   In the run-up to the 18 March United Nations Security Council session that passed Resolution 1973, the whispers of Rwanda were clearly heard at the United Nations and in dozens of national capitols.

Still, because history was altered with the intervention, many skeptics now claim that they are not convinced that Qaddafi was hell-bent on killing his own people or that an attack on Benghazi would have elevated to a compelling level of mass atrocity. In short, Libya was no Rwanda.

But here’s the thing about how to read Rwanda.   Looking back, there is a broad international consensus that the international community should have acted in Rwanda in 1994.   Yet, for decision makers the question of preventing genocide requires an ability to identify and interpret the signs of mass violence prior to the fact.  Even the most strident supporters of early intervention in Rwanda concluded that those signs were either missed or misinterpreted in the early days of the Rwandan genocide.  For its part, much of the press initially reported the Rwandan violence as a civil war that was the inevitable product of ancient tribal hatreds.   We now know in hindsight that Rwanda was a premeditated genocide, but very few voices in influential corridors of power saw it that way in the first days of the genocide.  A central lesson of Rwanda is that decision makers need to take more seriously the early warning signs of impending mass violence.

While Libya is not Rwanda in scale, the signals of impending mass atrocity violence were clearer, more direct, and more imminent on 17-19 March 2011 in Libya than they were during the first week of the Rwandan genocide,  7-14 April 1994.  In Libya, armored tank columns with air and naval support were advancing on Benghazi, a city of nearly 700,000. Qaddafi had weathered the initial wave of demonstrations. His forces had re-grouped and counterattacked. They were rapidly advancing to reassert control that had been lost three weeks earlier, to the combined efforts of a mass civil protest movement and an ill-defined, rag-tag assemblage of former military, police, and civilians (the latter loosely coalesced into a new rebel military force). Furthermore, Qaddafi gave a ranting speech in which he pledged “no mercy” and that his forces would go “house to house” to root out his opponents. This was a further signal of an escalating threat to civilians in Benghazi, especially in light of the political link between the civilians engaged in mass demonstrations and the newly formed rebel militia.  

It was the clarity of these signals that helped propel such a quick United Nations Security Council response on 18 March, and the enforcement of Resolution 1973 just over a day later.   It was also the experience that failing to intervene not only would have led to mass violence, but would likely have had destabilizing regional effects.  (Recall that the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath contributed to two major African wars – the first and second Congo wars in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed).  Failure to intervene in Libya almost certainly would have produced a major exodus of refugees and regional tensions that could have destabilized the nascent transitions in Tunisia and Egypt.

In short, the signs of impending mass atrocity were clear and compelling.

While the interventionist are correct, so too are the critics who claim that the United States and its allies now find themselves involved in a humanitarian action complicated by an intensifying civil war.   It is certainly possible that the applied international military, political, and economic pressure might compel an end to the Qaddafi regime in the coming days or weeks. But in the absence of such a sudden turn of events, the objectives of the allied military campaign from this point forward will become increasingly contentious, and its exit strategy will become more complicated.  

We’ve seen this before.  For example, in August 1992, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that 70 percent of Somalia’s population was suffering from severe malnutrition and over 1.5 million were at imminent risk of starvation as a result of the on-going civil war.  By December, under increasing pressure to take action, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 794 authorizing the United States to lead an international effort to restore security for the distribution of humanitarian relief.  The Americans landed without incident in mid-December 1992 and quickly restored the flow of humanitarian relief to refugee camps around the country.  Within a week the famine had been averted and the risk of starvation had dissipated.  On those grounds alone, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.  

Yet the intervention did nothing to solve the underlying political problems that fueled the conflict.  The Bush administration handed the problem to President Bill Clinton in early 1993. He was then faced with withdrawing American forces and letting the situation slip back to the status quo ante, or engaging American forces more intensively to resolve the underlying political problem.  While Clinton was blamed politically for allowing mission creep and the disaster of the Blackhawk Down incident on 3 October 1993 – and we teach university seminars on the failures of Somalia – we still have no good answer to fundamental question:  how to intervene to protect civilians and solve the underlying political questions that contribute to the threat in the first place. 

The best we have to date is the new Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine that came out of an extensive review of the failures in Rwanda.  R2P establishes an international course of action to protect civilians from four delineated crimes:  crimes of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  The doctrine has been refined and altered slightly over the past decade and now includes three pillars of responsibility.   Pillars one and two focus on prevention of the conditions that lead to the four crimes.

But Pillar 3 of the R2P doctrine also recognizes that in some extreme and rare instances greater measures may be necessary. It concludes that when a state is “manifestly failing” to protect its population, the international community is prepared to take collective action in a “timely and decisive manner” through the Security Council to stop them.  The architects were particularly concerned about the potential for great power political manipulation of intervention and so the bar for it is set very high:  military intervention must be predicated on "just war" principles and include demonstrable evidence of pre-existing and large-scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing. It can be actual or anticipated, and must be the product of deliberate state action, neglect, inability to act, or failure.  Intervention must also be considered within the context of four precautionary principles that include the right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects.

R2P probably offers the best framework to establish an international civilian protection regime. The problem, of course, is that it by the time we get to Pillar 3, we face a conundrum:  The failure to intervene will be catastrophic to thousands of human beings and likely lead to more regional violence, while intervention will be expensive and unlikely to resolve (it may actually exacerbate) the underlying political feuds that fuel civil wars. 

In this sense, more energy should be focused on the prevention side (Pillars 1 and 2) of R2P.  The problem, here of course, is that prevention is a very broad concept. It is empirically difficult to anticipate the whole range of potential future cases of mass atrocities, and it is even more politically and economically difficult to respond with real resources to a crisis that has yet to erupt.  

It is resolving these problems that lie at the heart of the challenges to build an international protection regime.