A couple weeks back I wrote a piece for the Foreign Policy journal issuing an eulogy for the Obama style application of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), that is a multilateral application. After what was arguably one of the most successful humanitarian interventions, in Libya, western efforts to increase pressure on Syria were shot down in the UN due, in part, to the evolution of the NATO mission in Libya from humanitarian to regime change.
David Reiff published an article for the New York Times (from which I steal the title of this post) that comes to the same conclusion, using a different theory. Reiff argues that in order to protect the Libyan civilians from Qaddafi, regime change was necessary; removing the malevolent leader is necessary to protect civilians from future oppression. Thus, while NATO certainly worked to remove Qaddafi from power, its offensive actions were still within the UN humanitarian mandate. For Reiff, the R2P can only be effective when the intervening forces actively engage in regime change – that is, to prevent current and future humanitarian abuses.
Considering that NATO and the rest of the world was willing to put up with the thuggery of Qaddafi prior to this year’s intervention, Reiff concludes that NATO used the R2P as a cover for regime change:
Blair and his counterparts in Paris and Washington had no trouble ignoring their professed values and turning a blind eye toward Qaddafi’s crimes when it suited them to do so. And then they decided their interests would be best served by backing the Libyan iteration of the Arab Spring. Regime change became the West’s policy, and the civilian-protection mandate of R2P was its cover.
Consequently, the successful intervention in Libya has conflated regime change and humanitarian intervention (the success of the latter requiring the implementation of the former.) While this is arguable, I accept this theory as the basis for Reiff’s argument. Reiff continues to detail how, in the eyes of most of the world — including, specifically the BRICS countries, the association between regime change and humanitarian intervention under R2P is simply a new form of neocolonialism; northern/western hemispheric countries imposing their will on the weaker southern/eastern hemispheric countries:
When R2P supporters advocated the doctrine before the U.N. in the middle of the last decade, they emphasized its nonmilitary aspects and insisted that the use of force would be a rare last resort. Yet in Libya force almost immediately followed the ultimatums issued to Qaddafi; for all intents and purposes, R2P was NATO-ized. As a result, everywhere outside Western Europe and North America, R2P is losing what little ethical credibility it ever commanded.
This should surprise no one. A doctrine of intervention that both claims the moral high ground and clamors its universality but under which the interveners are always from the Global North and the intervened upon always from the Global South is not moral progress; it is geopolitical business as usual.
While Reiff does not mention the Obama administration’s commitment to multilateralism when considering high profile international action, he arrives at the same conclusion. NATO’s active role in Libya, while considered within the UN mandate by the intervening forces, was considered to be a clear violation of international agreements, if not international law. Consequently, developing nations – the BRICS – are once again quick to see western intervention – even if it is truly humanitarian in nature – as a reformation of western domination, cloaked in humanitarian garb.
As I wrote in my Foreign Policy Journal article:
Whether the devotion of the west to R2P or the BRICS countries’ rejection of international action is better for humanity is irrelevant. The decision of NATO to push for regime change in Libya has brought the BRICS countries—two permanent UNSC members and three aspiring members—together, allied against any further international interventions. While many in the west are using the ouster of Qaddafi in Libya to validate the success of the R2P doctrine, the newly solidified alliance in the Security Council has viewed NATO actions in Libya to effectively block the ability of the west to implement R2P multilaterally. Considering the Obama administration’s disdain for unilateralism, the BRICS countries may have brought an end to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
So I repeat Reiff’s title. Rest in Peace Responsibility to Protect. Where western powerful countries have seen as necessary humanitarian action, developing countries have seen inappropriate abuse of a state’s sovereignty as well as the international system in general. Whether one views the current global disagreements over R2P as a north/south divide or a fundamental disagreement over how international institutions should be utilized in domestic situations, one thing is clear. The Responsibility to Protect never quite made it as a global norm. The intervention in Libya highlighted the fundamental contradiction within R2P and it is very unlikely that it will ever recover.
Photo from FPJ