The Libyan Crisis & the Intervention Debate
By Hira Thapa
Ever since the emergence of the current crisis in Libya the debate whether international intervention is justified even without authorisation from the UN Security Council has assumed renewed attraction. Those adhering to the notion of humanitarian intervention and particularly in the American Congress are now clamouring that the U.S. government should embrace this concept to prevent Gaddafi from killing the protesting Libyans, though highly controversial among the members of the UN. The issue of humanitarian intervention intended for deterring tyrants from committing mass atrocities was hotly debated in the late 1990s when the Kosovo province in the former Yugoslavia was exploding where atrocities were perpetrated against the majority Albanians in the wake of disintegration of the country.
The year of 1999 was symbolic for the UN, the only international organisation enjoying the sole authority of deciding about the use of force in order to maintain world peace, which was in a sense sidelined when at the behest of the U.S. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was prompted to even bomb Kosovo to threaten the then Yugoslav president Milosovic, whose forces were accused of massacring the rebels. The UN Security Council then was mired in disagreement over the use of military means against Yugoslavia to force its leader to concede to rebel demands as some permanent members in the council, notably China and Russia, were opposing the authorisation resolution.
Having used military means against former Yugoslavia in order to save the lives of Kosovars in October, 1999 ignoring international norms and practices as no resolution of the UN Security Council was available to legitimise that action, question is being asked now if that adventure has served its purpose. Has peace been enduring and sustainable in the breakaway province of former Yugoslavia where the western military alliance took that misstep despite widespread criticism of the move?
For the supporters of that approach Kosovo is now an independent country allowing its inhabitants the fruits of sovereignty and freedom to choose their destiny. On the other hand the present status of Kosovo’s independence is still questionable receiving negligible recognition from the international community. The irony is that Kosovo has not been accorded recognition even from the member countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) although the people of Kosovo are predominantly Muslims.
Therefore, caution needs to be applied before decision to favour humanitarian intervention is made. A lively debate seems to be taking place in America among adherents and opponents of this controversial concept, otherwise known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), against the background of Colonel Gaddafi’s defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 1970 of 26 February, 2011. The U.S. has been harshly criticised by the wider international community for invading Iraq in 2003 without specific authorization resolution of the UN Security Council.
The chaos and instability in Iraq where a weak coalition government is in charge highlight the painful consequences emanating from intervention. It does not surprise anyone to learn that the involvement of U.S. forces in Iraq though withdrawal plan outlined by president Obama is yet to become operational, has made intervention debate more complex and puzzling. Is Iraq presenting a case that induces the enthusiasts of R2P to think seriously before military option is given green signal in Libya under the present circumstances?
Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding the doctrine of R2P the UN has endorsed it through its Outcome Document issued at the world leaders’ summit in 2005, when the world body was commemorating its sixtieth anniversary. Such endorsement, however, does not provide carte blanche to any state or a coalition of states or a regional organization to use military force against any state in the name of international peace in an absence of relevant decision from the UN Security Council. The essence of the above UN Outcome Document is that the international community has a duty to take appropriate action when the responsibility to protect the people living in the territory of a state is neglected.
As the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect sees a state’s sovereignty inseparable from its responsibility to protect its citizens and emphasizes that there is justification of use of force in preventing human catastrophe, most of the Third World countries view this as a pretext on the part of western nations to intervene militarily against less prosperous countries to pursue their interests.
There is wide international rift regarding the concept of humanitarian intervention, which is evidenced in the General Assembly debate held in July 2009 when the UN Secretary-General presented his implementation strategy to operationalize R2P. During that discussion many non-aligned countries and permanent members of the UN Security Council like Russia and China expressed apprehension that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention would lead to abuse of states masking self-interested intervention as humanitarian.
The current trend of debate in U.S. also lends credence to such susceptibility of the developing world. The President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations Mr. Leslie H. Gelb has rightly questioned the rationale of the American Senators Kerry, Lieberman and McCain who are now in the forefront to plead for intervention in Libya.
He asks them if violence on a significant scale justifies military intervention, the U.S. should have intervened in places like the Sudan, Ivory Coast and Congo. There is national interest factor which determines such action. To elaborate this Mr. Gelb quotes William D. Rogers, who was Secretary of State in 1969 when Colonel Qaddafi led Libyan coup. Rogers has said, “I guess we were kind of euphoric about him at first”. Many right thinking westerners then thought Qaddafi to be a modernizing democrat in the opinion of Leslie Gelb.
Military intervention can be a means not an end and that too requires to be backed by the UN Security Council authorisation to make it credible in the eyes of the international community.
(Thapa is a former Foreign Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister (2008-09). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)