Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Resolution 1973: Responsibility to Protect, Not Humanitarian Intervention in Libya

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Resolution 1973: Responsibility to Protect, Not Humanitarian Intervention in Libya

Article excerpt

With Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya, the U.N. for the first time effectively fulfilled its mandate under the concept of Responsibility to Protect that the General Assembly accepted in 2005. The resolution called for member nations to undertake the protection of Libyan civilians-but ruled out the involvement of ground forces or "occupation."

The background of the present actions and attitudes in Libya owe much to the first Gulf war. The very concept of Responsibility to Protect owes its origins to Desert Storm two decades ago, and to the suspicion that surrounded it. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, it was in clear violation of the U.N. Charter, which was drafted to stop just such annexations. For those who might be cynical about the organization's accomplishments, no member of the U.N. has been invaded and annexed since those early days, which is of course one of the reasons why Palestine wants recognized membership-and why Israel does not want it to. Countries have been invaded, and regime changes effected, as when Tanzania chased Idi Amin out of Uganda, or indeed India's war against Pakistan led to the establishment of Bangladesh-but no member state has involuntarily disappeared.

Initially the U.N. imposed sanctions on Iraq, and when Saddam did not withdraw from Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush, using a broad U.N. mandate, assembled a genuinely wide coalition including contingents from most of the Arab world-and American technology and airpower inflicted devastating economic damage on Iraq from which its infrastructure has never really recovered. In the aftermath of the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, President Bush knew that the coalition he had assembled to liberate Kuwait would fall apart if Desert Storm became an invasion of Iraq in turn. He did not go to Baghdad, and the Shi'i of the south and the Kurds in the north, whom the U.S. had encouraged to revolt, were left to their fates as Saddam Hussain reasserted control.

And that is where the modern concept of humanitarian intervention, now called the Responsibility to Protect, came from. The French invoked it to help the Kurds, whom Washington was leaving to a bloody fate in the mountains. John Major, Britain's prime minister, hovered uncertainly, until his predecessor Margaret Thatcher made it plain that if she were still in office, she would certainly intervene, shaming both Major and Bush into going along.

No U.N. member state has involuntarily disappeared-which is why Palestine wants membership.

At the time the U.N. could produce no public precedent for the concept. Although its more zealous legal scholars did discover that Hitler had (ab)used the concept to justify going into Czechoslovakia to rescue the Sudeten Germans, they were politic enough to ventilate their discovery.

When, in 2005, with Srebrenica and Rwanda (not to mention Sabra and Shatila, because few people did) behind it, the U.N. and many of its members felt that something must be done to defend populations against governments, they did not want to invoke "humanitarian intervention." The abuse of the concept in Iraq had given intervention a bad name, even before Tony Blair invoked it to cover the embarrassing lack of weapons of mass destruction. "Responsibility to Protect" was in some measure a marketing concept, less aggressive in tone.

When it came to applying the concept in the Security Council, however, the long shadow of Iraq and American arrogance, combined with the politics of Russia and China, led to deadlock. The Russians had, in post-Glasnost euphoria, gone along with the New World Order-only to find that they had been suckered by the triumphalists in Washington.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for example, was Moscow's U.N. ambassador for the long years in which the U.S. and UK (and initially France as well, lest we forget) insisted on "implementing" the resolutions against Saddam Hussain's Iraq far beyond any reasonable interpretation and equally beyond the wishes of members on the Council. …

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