One year ago western powers intervened in Libya to protect the civilian population. The operation toppled the Libyan regime, but it has also rendered similar interventions more difficult, as the example of Syria shows.
In January 2011 people in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria took to the streets to demonstrate for more democracy. The protests in Cairo and Tunis brought down the respective governments. The mood quickly spread to neighboring Libya, sparking protests against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, who had been ruling the country since 1969. The Libyan government cracked down violently on peaceful protesters in Benghazi, killing dozens. As the protests spread, the number of casualties among the demonstrators soared. The protests quickly turned into a military conflict between the rebels and Gaddafi supporters, with parts of the army and the diplomatic corps joining the rebels' cause. A national transitional government was established in the country's east.
The United Nations responded swiftly with an arms embargo against Libya. Subsequently, on March 17 2011 the UN passed Resolution 1973, empowering the international community to take military measures to protect Libyan civilians. The principle "Responsibility to Protect" was applied here, legitimizing military intervention as a last resort to protect civilian lives. Only two days after the resolution was passed the US, UK and France launched an air and naval blockade together with airstrikes against military positions. On March 31, the western military alliance NATO assumed sole command of the operation, which it concluded six months later.
Intervention was justified
The military intervention in Libya set a precedent for the future because on the one hand the principle of non-intervention was annulled and on the other hand the mission triggered more than just regime change. Former dictator Gadhafi was killed, even if the rebels were responsible for his death.
Experts on international law, politicians and political scientists generally agree that the NATO mission was justified because at no stage of the conflict was Gadhafi prepared to give in. Many scientists like Henning Riecke of the German think tank for foreign policy DGAP view the intervention as a blueprint for similar situations: "The UN fulfilled their obligation to support the civilian population in Libya in line with the principle of 'Responsibility to Protect.'" This applies when the state can't or won't help, is the perpetrator and - as was the case in Libya - "is killing and cracking down on its citizens."
Riecke in this context refers to the fact that "in such a scenario the protection of the population can not be safeguarded without taking action against government troops. If these are the perpetrators, they have to be fought." Neutrality is not possible in situations resembling civil war, he added.
Riecke admits that the UN "may have reached a climax of humanitarian intervention with the Libya mission." The fact that this humanitarian intervention resulted in regime change is anathema to Russia and China, in particular. Both countries felt betrayed by the Libya resolution because the other veto powers in the Security Council interpreted the document rather more liberally than China or Russia who had abstained from the vote. When the international focus shifted to Syria both Beijing and Moscow adamantly vetoed any resolution.
NATO's military enforcement of the Libya resolution has rendered future humanitarian interventions more difficult, says Rolf Mützenich, the foreign policy spokesman of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD). The example of Syria supports this view. However, Mützenich believes "Russia and China are just using the Libya intervention as an excuse," because the draft resolution on Syria doesn't envisage any military intervention - just like the first resolution on Libya didn't in February 2011.
And there are further disparities: So far no military front has been established in Syria, no region has seceded and there are no significant defectors to the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). Riecke also points out that any intervention in Syria would also directly affect Turkey and Israel. In addition, the conflict triggered in Syria could in fact be worse than the current situation, he says.
How to resolve the impasse?
Nonetheless it is crucial to find ways out of the current diplomatic impasse, especially with regard to resolving the complicated situation in Syria. Mützenich says the responsibility to protect is not just about military intervention. This should rather be the exception. He says now is the time to resort more strongly to the preventive instruments of peace policy and diplomacy. The responsibility for this lies first and foremost with the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary General, he added.
Almost all UN member states recognized the principle of "Responsibilty to Protect" in 2005. In 2009, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon published the three pillars on which this principle should rest. Mützenich says now it's up to the Europeans, the US as well as Brazil, India and South Africa to use astute diplomacy to convince Russia and China of the merits of this principle, to make clear that it's not just about external intervention but also about assuming responsibility to protect civilians.
Author: Sabine Hartert / nk
Editor: Rob Mudge