Testing new peace plan on Libya



The Libyan crisis is the first practical application under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) international peacekeeping powers of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. This is cause for celebration.

In his two terms (1997–2006), former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan tirelessly encouraged an apprehensive UN membership to accept this momentous advance in international peacekeeping practice. Two Australian foreign ministers, Gareth Evans and, during the past month, Kevin Rudd, have advocated in favour of this doctrine.

The UN, like its toothless pre-WW2 predecessor the League of Nations, was established as a voluntary association of freely consenting sovereign states. But the UN Charter included a Security Council with powers to promptly exercise agreed military force against any state which launched unprovoked aggression on another state, thus creating a threat to international peace and security.

The UNSC peacekeeping procedures offer in themselves no built-in rapid sanctions against regimes that treat their own citizens with extreme cruelty. By the time UN human rights-based international diplomacy cranks into action, millions of people can perish at the hands of evil governments.

We saw this in the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975–79, the Bosnian Serb regime's murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in 1992–95, and the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Annan argued that all states' national sovereignty should be conditional on their fulfilling a responsibility to protect the 'individual sovereignty', i.e. human rights, of their own citizens, and that regimes which violate these rights forfeit their right to be treated as sovereign states.

This concept harks back to long-hallowed Judaeo-Christian-Islamic precepts that rulers are required to govern their peoples justly and in accordance with natural law.

Gaddafi's threats late last week of bloody reprisals against people in the last remaining besieged rebel cities of Benghazi and Tobruk, and his continuing attacks on these cities using tanks and heavy artillery in direct violation of his own proclaimed ceasefires, were the catalyst for the UNSC to finally endorse R2P-based international military action against him.  

Gaddafi might have got away with suppressing the present revolution, but for his own arrogance in exposing to the world his cruelty and indifference to his people's rights.

For there is a great fear in the general UN membership, as well as in powerful contrarian states China and Russia, which have their own human rights skeletons in the closet, that the West might use R2P as a cloak for renewed interventions or resources grabs in post-colonial independent nations.

There was also a quietly influential view in conservative circles in the West that Gaddafi provided a kind of stability that kept Libyan oil safely flowing westwards, and that it might be good if he regained control of Libya.

But when Gaddafi finally threatened to go door by door through the rebel cities, killing opponents as he went, the UN saw at last that the world was on the threshold of another genocidal atrocity of Cambodian or Rwandan proportions.

As British Prime Minister David Cameron observed, the UNSC resolution authorising international action to establish a no-fly zone and to do whatever is necessary to protect Libyan civilians from their ruler is necessary, right, and lawful.

In addition to authorising international air-based military action to establish a no-fly zone (a mission quickly accomplished), the resolution approved international force to be used as required to help protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi's well-armed ground forces.

Here, geography favours the rebels, because tanks and guns on the move across Libya's open desert roads towards rebel cities are easy air targets. Hopefully, the lesson will be quickly learned by Gaddafi's forces that their ground power has now been neutralised.

The international community could soon face choices requiring it to pursue a policy of the lesser evil. It would be better for Gaddafi and his family to be allowed into some safe international haven, and for the ascendant rebel government to offer amnesty to his armed supporters, than for street fighting to rage on for weeks through the chain of cities between Benghazi and Tripoli. Under the resolution, the West would be unable to (and indeed should not) intervene in any such ground fighting.

I hope Libyans will see sense in this policy and urge it on their Western supporters, however much it might protect Gaddafi from international judicial accountability for his crimes.

To leave Gaddafi no escape option, to push hm into a last-ditch Hitlerian bunker stand, would cause much unnecessary civilian death and destruction. 

What could go wrong now? Only a clumsy misdirected air attack on Gaddafi's forces in towns, causing civilian casualties, might swing Arab opinion against the UNSC-approved action. This seems unlikely.

Because Gaddafi now has no international support, his cause seems doomed. We will know the outcome, I think, within days rather than weeks. The course seems set fair that the new doctrine of R2P will pass its first crucial international test. 

Tony KevinTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department. He was Australia's ambassador to Poland (1991–94) and Cambodia (1994–97).    

Topic tags: Gaddafi, Libya, rebels, UN Security Council, Gareth Evans, Kevin Rudd, Responsibility to Protect, R2P



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Existing comments

Tony, I hope you're right.
Sara Dowse | 23 March 2011

A very good article - thanks, Tony. I guess the test for the West now will be to keep their hands off Libyan oil and avoid this intervention turning into another Iraq or Afghanistan. Given the fact that modern wars seem to be waged mostly against civilians, who make the largest numbers of casualties, it would be very good if the UNSC policy of R2P were to be found an effective way of handling tyrants.

Hopefully, though, Lybia will not be like Iraq: the grotesque end of Saddam Hussein was shameful and an indictment on the West. I pray for a swift solution in Libya, which may soon be another oe of many countries successful in demanding democracy in this fast changing world.
Eveline Goy | 23 March 2011

I adore your wishful thinking and I hope you are right. I am not sure if the exercise is an attempt for France and Italy to give its leaders some glory or if it is a real attempt in trying to get rid of evil leaders in this world. I am sure the USA got “sucked in” again. If anything is going to go bad, the USA will be again a handy country to take all the blame. If on the other hand the situation in Libya improves and some kind of democracy becomes established, the leaders of Italy and France will feel they had re-established some of the former colonial glory.

I wonder how many rebellions will start now in the hope that the UN will come to their aid. If oil could be found in Zimbabwe, I am sure even Mugabe could become a target.

Beat Odermatt | 23 March 2011

unfortunately it is about oil otherwise we might go into zimbabwe after all mr.Mugabe is a tyrant too. and should not Gaddalfi be up in front of the international court of justice for all the bad he has done so I am naive but wrong is wrong and too often we have supported it by being quiet.
irena springfield | 23 March 2011

Gaddafi has been there for 43 years and the whole economy and resources have been in the hands of his family. When he goes there is no system to take its place. The key to the future is the use of sanctions that freeze all the international accounts and place government in the hands of new responsible leaders in Bengazi whioh will not be easy and take time.
John Ozanne | 23 March 2011

I'm very happy for what happened to Gadafi,as far life is concerned he's a worst ended history and should b a lesson these so called heartless, in human,uncultured and selfish rulers in africa who has kept in a wood.God will show all of them that he alone is God.there's time for everything this the time of change.
Ekeh Chukwuemeka | 23 March 2011

To have an uncompromised opinion about the situation as it unfolds in the Middle East we need to say that we would cheerfully front up to the bowser and patiently wait our turn for scant and very expensive refills of our cars.
graham patison | 25 March 2011


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