Principles, Politics, and Prudence: Libya, the Responsibility to Protect, and the Use of Military Force

By Williams, Paul D.; Bellamy, Alex J. | Global Governance, July-September 2012 | Go to article overview

Principles, Politics, and Prudence: Libya, the Responsibility to Protect, and the Use of Military Force


Williams, Paul D., Bellamy, Alex J., Global Governance


RESOLUTION 1973 (17 MARCH 2011) WAS THE FIRST TIME THE UNITED NATIONS Security Council authorized the use of military force for human protection purposes against a functioning de jure government. As such, it represents a significant development in the international politics of military force. But what are its likely consequences and how did it come about? We submit that Resolution 1973 and the subsequent enforcement operations, Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector, were partly facilitated by the developing principle and practice of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Despite an increasing number of rhetorical commitments made by international institutions and many governments to prevent mass atrocities in the post--Cold War era, the use of force for human protection purposes remained severely constrained by principled objections rooted in international law and moral differences, the low political payoffs and potentially grave risks associated with humanitarian war, and the combination of difficult operational dilemmas and an absence of clear guidance about the strategies and tactics most likely to have positive effects in different circumstances. (1)

Historically, these obstacles coalesced to produce a default policy environment that was strongly averse to the use of force to prevent or end the commission of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity (hereafter, genocide and mass atrocities). We submit that R2P has helped mitigate these three types of constraints, albeit unevenly, making UN-authorized humanitarian military intervention both politically possible in Libya and more likely in other similar cases. (2) First, R2P has largely resolved principled debate about whether international society should become engaged in such crises and replaced it with debates about how to best protect populations from grave abuses. Within international society, this principle is underscored by a widely shared understanding of the need for Security Council authorization for any use of military force. Second, R2P has helped to change international political calculations by establishing shared expectations and common interests, though of course national interests and domestic politics continue to shape decisions about using force. Third, it has provided a catalyst for more creative thinking about operational issues, most notably supporting moves toward using a broader range of measures to coerce and induce behavioral change and deepening understanding of the range of potential military measures and associated pitfalls. Nevertheless, while agreement on principles is important, reaching consensus on how to consistently apply those principles in response to specific cases is far more difficult, as the case of Syria in 2012 demonstrates only too well. (3) Moreover, while the use of force to protect populations from genocide and mass atrocities has become more likely, it is still rare and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. (4)

To substantiate these claims, we begin this article by summarizing the road to the use of force in Libya, focusing on the forging of international consensus around Resolution 1973. Next, we contextualize Resolution 1973 by outlining the main principled, political, and prudential obstacles to using force for human protection purposes. In the final section, we revisit these obstacles and explore R2P's role in reshaping the way they are conceptualized and, in turn, the politics of using force to protect populations from genocide and mass atrocities.

Libya: The Road to Humanitarian War

On 19 March 2011, military forces from France, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States struck the air defenses and soldiers of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya. These countries led a coalition of states with the expressed aim of enforcing the objectives set out by UN Security Council Resolution 1973, principally the operation of a no-fly zone over Libya, imposition of an arms embargo, and the protection of civilians on the ground. …

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Principles, Politics, and Prudence: Libya, the Responsibility to Protect, and the Use of Military Force
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