Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

"Leading from Behind": The Responsibility to Protect, the Obama Doctrine, and Humanitarian Intervention after Libya

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

"Leading from Behind": The Responsibility to Protect, the Obama Doctrine, and Humanitarian Intervention after Libya

Article excerpt

Humanitarian intervention has always been more popular in theory than in practice. In the face of unspeakable acts, the desire to do something, anything, is understandable. States have tended to be reluctant to act on such desires, however, leading to the present situation in which there are scores of books and countless articles articulating the contours of a right--or even an obligation--of humanitarian intervention, while the number of cases that might be cited as models of what is being advocated can be counted on one hand.

So is Libya such a case? It depends on why one thinks that precedent is important. From an international legal perspective, debates have tended to focus on whether one or more states have the right to intervene in another for human protection purposes. From the standpoint of international relations and domestic politics, the question is whether states have the will to intervene. From a military angle, a key dilemma is whether states have the ability to intervene effectively. This essay considers these three issues in turn. The legal significance of Libya is minimal, though the international response does show how the politics of humanitarian intervention has shifted to the point where it is harder to do nothing in the face of atrocities. At the same time, however, military action to the end of May zoxi suggested a continuing disjunction between ends and means.


For an international lawyer, the intervention in Libya is interesting but not exactly groundbreaking. Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) was consistent with resolutions passed in the heady days of the immediate post-cold war era. As early as December 1992 (Somalia) and April 1993 (Srebrenica) the Council had authorized the use of "all necessary means" to establish secure conditions for humanitarian relief and create safe havens in situations of internal conflict. (1) Though there are nuances of difference, such as those pointed out by Alex Bellamy in his contribution to this roundtable, the question of consent to an operation is not legally significant when it is authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. (2) Tellingly, there was no need to include language that the situation was "unique," "exceptional," or "unique and exceptional"--phrases used in resolutions in the early 199os to ensure abstentions by China and others on resolutions that significantly broadened the Security Council's international peace and security mandate.

From a legal standpoint, then, Resolution 1973 was hardly groundbreaking. Yet the complications of implementing those two resolutions of the early 199os--in Somalia and Srebrenica--suggest that the problems have never been limited only to what the law allows, but also include what politics permits and what is militarily possible.

This is not to say that the emergence of the "responsibility to protect" (RtoP) has not been normatively important. In order to get consensus in the commission that coined the term and the UN General Assembly that embraced it, however, compromises were necessary. First, as Tom Weiss observes, the 200l International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) sandwiched the military question between the "white bread" of prevention and postconflict peacebuilding. (3) Second, by the time RtoP was endorsed by the World Summit in 2005, its normative content had been emasculated to the point where it essentially provided that the Security Council could authorize, on a case-by-case basis, things that it had been authorizing for more than a decade. (4)

There is evident hesitation on the part of the Council to embrace the RtoP doctrine fully. Resolution 1973 refers only to the "responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population." (5) This is consistent with earlier Council resolutions that had used variants of the phrase, but limited it to that first pillar of RtoP, national protection. (6) Two later resolutions went further, touching on the responsibility of the international community, but confined themselves to "reaffirming" the provisions of the 2005 Outcome Document. …

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