The Responsibility to Protect after Libya and Syria

By Zifcak, Spencer | Melbourne Journal of International Law, June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Responsibility to Protect after Libya and Syria


Zifcak, Spencer, Melbourne Journal of International Law


At the United Nations World Summit in 2005, global political leaders endorsed a new doctrine to govern international political behaviour entitled the 'responsibility to protect'. Pursuant to this doctrine, the nations of the world affirmed that the primary responsibility for the prevention of mass atrocity crimes rests with the sovereign state in which such crimes are anticipated or occurring. If, however, a state fails to exercise that responsibility, the international community may assume a corresponding duty to protect civilian populations from the commission of genocide and crimes against humanity. Only a short time later, in 2011, the international community was confronted with the prospect that large-scale civilian casualties may occur as a consequence of fighting between government and rebel forces in Libya. The UN Security Council, therefore, was confronted with the dilemma of whether to authorise an intervention to avert what seemed likely to be a humanitarian catastrophe. In this case, the UN Security Council sanctioned an intervention by NATO forces in accordance with the new doctrine. Soon after, the Syrian rebellion took hold and civilians began to be killed and injured in their thousands. In that case, however, the Security Council was paralysed. Neither sanctions nor military intervention could be agreed upon. In this article the Libyan and Syrian cases are analysed with a view to determining why the international community's response to the two conflicts has been so different and what these differences tell us about the current standing and practice of the responsibility to protect doctrine.

CONTENTS

I   Introduction
II  Libya
      A The Responsibility to Protect after Libya
III Syria
IV  Libya/Syria
      A Politics
      B Principle
      C Strategy
      D The Responsibility to Protect after Syria

'I watched a little baby die today. Absolutely horrific ... No one here can understand how the international community can let this happen.... There is just shells, rockets and tank fire pouring into civilian areas of this city, and it is just unrelenting.'

--Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin from Horns, Syria, the day before she was killed by Syrian military rocket fire. (1)

I INTRODUCTION

It is infrequently the case that one person by uttering one word can change the course of history. Yet Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya did just that. The word was 'cockroaches' and he used it to describe those in the city of Benghazi who were rising against him in February 2011. (2) He vowed to search for them 'house to house'. (3) He said that protesters would be 'hunted down door to door and executed'. (4) His use of the word was eerily reminiscent of the same word used in the same context by Hum radio in Rwanda prior to the massacre of Tutsi opponents in 1994. It is probable that 'the responsibility to protect' ('R2P') was born from that usage and at that time. (5)

Few in the international political and diplomatic communities could have imagined the international standing and influence the new doctrine succeeded in attaining in the decade since it was first conceived. (6) Now, however, the doctrine faces the sternest test of its application and credibility in the wake of the recent Libyan and Syrian uprisings. In this article, I re-examine its standing following these bitter conflicts.

The rebellion against the Gaddafi regime commenced in February 2011, following closely upon revolutionary changes that were occurring in Tunisia and Egypt. However, whereas in those countries the autocrats in charge had reacted with a measure of restraint, Gaddafi declared war on the Libyan uprising. Soon, the number of protestors killed climbed from the hundreds to more than a thousand. As the Gaddafi forces gained strength and territory, so the opposition weakened to the extent that it appeared highly likely that it might be swept away in Benghazi, the city at the epicentre of the rebellion.

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