The Responsibility to Protect in the Anarchical Society: Power, Interest, and the Protection of Civilians in Libya and Syria

Article excerpt

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's ("NATO") 2011 intervention in Libya is widely regarded as a successful example of the international community fulfilling its responsibility to protect civilians against abuses perpetrated by their own state. The responsibility to protect addresses certain shortcomings in the concept of humanitarian intervention--the use of military force to address humanitarian crises. The use of force to address grave violations of human rights may often be too little, too late. By contrast, the responsibility to protect is a continuum of actions (including, but not limited to, the use of force), which is intended to address crises earlier and through a variety of different tools. The NATO intervention, authorized by the United Nations ("U.N.") Security Council, responded to the Libyan government's attacks against civilian rebels inspired to revolt by the events of the Arab Spring. Yet in other instances in which governments responded brutally to pro-democracy protestors--notably Syria--the role of the international community has been significantly less visible than in Libya. While governments in both Libya and Syria responded with force to unarmed civilian protestors, and are suspected of crimes against humanity, only the former was the target of intervention by the international community, an action that ultimately led to the demise of the regime.

The contrast between these two cases bears out the fact that the responsibility to protect is subject to many of the same pitfalls as humanitarian intervention. Critics of humanitarian intervention correctly pointed to selectivity in its application as problematic. States intervened in instances where they had an interest--humanitarian or otherwise--in intervening and the power to do so. The selectivity that seems to plague action under the frameworks of both humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect stems from the nature of the international system, and the lack of a realistic alternative to state action in support of either principle. While the responsibility to protect has advanced the debate about support for human rights in some key respects, it is nevertheless subject to some of the same pitfalls as humanitarian intervention with respect to implementation.

This article begins with a brief overview of the two cases under consideration, Libya and Syria. It then surveys the evolution of the debate about the international community's role in responding to human rights violations, with an emphasis on the emergence of the responsibility to protect. Finally, it takes up the dynamics of the international system that frustrate a consistent application of the responsibility to protect, perpetuating the inconsistency that subjected the right of humanitarian intervention to criticism.


On December 17, 2010, Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after the government confiscated his goods. Bouazizi's death brought to the forefront rage against the Tunisian government, which was widely viewed as oppressive and corrupt. (1) A coalition of intellectuals, human rights activists, and labor movements successfully toppled the government within a month of Bouazizi's self-immolation. The anti-government sentiment was not limited to Tunisia, and soon spread elsewhere throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya and Syria.

A. The Libyan Uprising

The Libyan regime of Muammar Khadafy did not escape the groundswell of rebellion. On February 17, 2011, Libyans who were discontent with Khadafy's rule held a "day of rage" protest in response to the government's human rights abuses, which Amnesty International describes as having been a "hallmark" of the regime. (2) Protests continued in the city of Benghazi and quickly spread elsewhere throughout Libya, and they were met with brutal repression. In Benghazi, security forces killed at least 109 protestors, some of whom had been protesting peacefully. …