A lesser evil? Libya and the ‘responsibility to protect’

By John Heathershaw
April 8, 2011

Three weeks into humanitarian military intervention in Libya it is worth taking stock, as Harry Hagopian did for Ekklesia (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14444). The overwhelmingly Western action raised fundamental questions that have only become more pressing since that time. They were each considered in a special seminar at the University of Exeter on 30 March 2011 involving students of International Relations and Libyan doctoral researchers. The complete lack of consensus over the nature and prospects of the intervention seems to be mirrored in the international policy discussion on Libya.

1. What is the current purpose of the humanitarian military intervention in Libya?

The purposes are multiple, shifting and somewhat contradictory.

It is important to ask what the current purpose is as what is the purpose now is not what was the purpose then. What was clear from our seminar was that whilst the strongly anti-Gaddafi Libyan participants strongly supported the military intervention they had little faith in the humanitarian intent.

One reason for this is that humanitarian intents have been combined with purposes of international reputation, security and strategy. Mary Kaldor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14470) labels this ‘human security intervention’ but such a labelling fails to capture the full extent of what is going on.

Firstly, it was clear to Britain and France with their histories of supporting the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya that they must salvage their reputation internationally, to their publics and to their selves by supporting the right side in the conflict. It is not clear that they have even convinced themselves yet but this question of reputation and prestige must be considered a purpose of the intervention.

Secondly, there was a security purpose. For European powers adopting a broader security agenda which includes questions of the supposed threat of migration as well as the more traditional concern with stability on one’s borders, it was felt that they could not sit by and let the repression of the rebellion unfold.

Thirdly, as soon as the military route was taken, the intervention acquired a strategic purpose of supporting the rebels against the Gaddafi regime in the hope that they would be strong enough to take the capital. Despite this not being mentioned in UN Security Council Resolution 1973, it was clear from the start that this intervention was anything but impartial. Air support for the rebels, the intelligence officers in Benghazi liaising with the Transitional National Council and efforts to supply them with arms all must be seen in this light. This has served to intensify the conflict and bring about the conditions for a prolonged civil war.

Finally, as the strategic aim of winning the war has been shown to be out of reach, western powers have shifted to conflict resolution objectives. This involves negotiating with moderates in the regime and encouraging others to defect in order to achieve the ousting of Gaddafi and a compromise agreement between the remnants of the regime and the rebels.

2. What can a ‘no-fly zone’ achieve?

Very little directly, but it can have significant indirect consequences.

The ‘no fly zone’ which is being implemented is in fact the use of air power to support a rebel group against the former or current sovereign government of their country. This is consistent with Bosnia in 1995 as NATO bombed Bosnian Serb and Yugoslav forces to facilitate a Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat combined offensive. It is consistent with the use of airpower in Kosovo in 1999 against Yugoslav forces and in Yugoslavia itself. It is also consistent with the use of airpower to protect the Kurds of northern Iraq from 1991-2003.

In each case, the use of airpower alone enabled irredentism: the creation of new political communities – de facto, if not de jure, states. Most interesting, in only one of the three cases was the purpose of the intervention the creation or consolidation of a new sovereign state. Western powers have never, in modern times, supported an independent Kurdistan, and they were strongly opposed to an independent Kosovo until the political facts on the ground made staying within Yugoslavia impossible. Even today, Kosovo is only recognised by a minority of UN members.

The difference in Libya is that there is no logical basis for a new political community to break away from Libya. Any attempt to create this would lead to a long-term civil war. This is why a ‘no-fly zone’ is in itself particularly ineffective (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14366) in the Libyan case at creating conditions for resolving the conflict.

3. Is Libya a case of the ‘responsibility to protect’?


The multiple, shifting and contradictory purposes stated above may seem to suggest that this is not a humanitarian mission as it is not exclusively humanitarian, is partial and has served to intensify the conflict. However, in an era in which governmental humanitarianism and militarism have become wholly intertwined, what has transpired in Libya is, in fact, wholly consistent with the ‘responsibility to protect’ (known as R2P).

The R2P doctrine was outlined in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, supported by the Government of Canada amongst others, and adopted by the UN as policy in the More Secure World report of 2004. This shift was in keeping with broader trends in humanitarianism and peacekeeping since the expansion of such missions at the end of the Cold War.

UNSCR 1973, acting under Chapter 7 of the UN charter that allows for the use of coercive measures without the permission of the sitting government of the state in question, explicitly stated that the protection of civilians was the purpose of the mission, given the failure of the Libyan government in that regard. The current French-UN mission in Cote D’Ivoire, authorised by UNSCR 1975 and also under the authority of Chapter 7 of the charter, also seeks to protect civilians by the use of military firepower.

These two resolutions seem to indicate a decisive shift towards a more consistent application of R2P in international policy-making, one that has been applauded by many liberal or progressive thinkers. The very fact that the immediate question which arises in most minds – How else could they be protected? – sees no alternative, shows how inextricably intertwined humanitarianism and military have become.

However, such humanitarian action is not quite as resolute as it seems. It lacks the long-term commitment to the cause of the widespread and largely non-violent protest movements of Egypt and Tunisia. Moreover, its application in Libya was led by British and French governments keen to be seen to respond and counter claims that they have only bolstered authoritarian governments. Seen this way, it is the long-standing irresponsibility of Western governments in the face of the humanitarian conditions of the Middle East that has this action in the name of the responsibility to protect.

4. Are we on the cusp of a protracted civil war? What is the military balance of the conflict? What is most likely to reduce the level of violence?

These three questions relate to the state of the armed conflict. The answer to the first question seems, sadly, to be yes. But being on the cusp of civil war does not make such an armed conflict inevitable. This is the reason why in the last week diplomatic initiatives have been launched to resolve the conflict.

The intervention initially rebalanced and then intensified the conflict. Now, there is a stalemate. We have a relatively well-organised and funded force with the possibility to resupply its arms through Chad, versus a barely-organised force with arms, airpower and intelligence from the Western powers.

As a consequence, neither a rebel victory nor a Gaddafi victory seems at all likely in the near future. Moreover, the conflict is not at a stage of ‘ripeness for resolution’ where formal negotiations between parties could be considered to have a reasonable chance of success.

The best hope may be continued regime fracture and some form of negotiated solution. But it seems unlikely that the Transitional National Council – an alliance of convenience of former Gaddafi ministers, intellectuals and oppositionists – could step into power without a future of prolonged instability and in-fighting.

It is quite likely that in both Libya and the Cote D’Ivoire that the ‘good guys’ may not be much better at running the country than the ‘bad guys’. The reason for this is not some essential tendency towards authoritarianism in Arab culture, or the predominance of tribal divisions. It is rather that such division and the political and economic structures of repression are sustained by military and economic relations with global powers who claim to support democracy.

5. Was the cost of doing nothing worse than the cost of doing something?

The essence of the puzzle of humanitarian military intervention is that this question cannot be satisfactorily answered.

For the interventionists and the many Libyan supporters of the action against Gaddafi, the alternative to what we have was a ‘massacre’ in Bengahzi as the regime’s forces moved towards the city on 17-18 March 2011. If indeed tens of thousands of civilians would have been mindlessly slaughtered, then even the most convinced pacifist would struggle to argue against intervention.

In our university seminar, the crimes of Gaddafi during his tenure in power were listed by citizens of his country and followers of Islam, some of whose families had experienced these crimes first-hand. It was stated more than once that civil war against the regime, and military intervention in support of that rebellion was the ‘lesser evil’. There is also a long tradition of Christian just war from St Augustine to Rheinhold Niebuhr and beyond.

However, how much lesser is the evil of humanitarian military intervention as it has emerged in the post-Cold War era? The preliminary findings from the experience of Libya, along with much of the record of interventionism since 1989, suggest that while many of its intents may be good, it is a process which lacks responsibility. It does so for several reasons including mixed motives, political interests and practical expedience which lead to compromises on humanitarian objectives. However, there is a more fundamental problem than that. We might call this the God problem.

In short, we are not God - yet in claiming the responsibility to protect we play at being God. What happens in cases of humanitarian military intervention is as much about luck, chance and providence as it is about strategic planning or good intentions. In other words, responsibility is at best partial and often completely lacking as the majority of what occurs is beyond the control of the UN, national governments and the generals. This ‘irresponsibility’ of R2P is its fundamental weakness. It claims responsibility where responsibility cannot be grasped.

Of course, this kind of argument for non-violence and against humanitarian military intervention, meets the obvious objection of the interventionists, apparently captured in the famous and over-used Edmund Burke quote: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

All short quotes (and columns, like this one) necessarily simplify and reduce for the purpose of understanding, or at least argumentation. This famous quote, however, is a massive over-simplification applied, in the case of humanitarian military intervention, to a political problem of unmatched complexity.

What cases like Libya show is that the dilemma is more complex than whether to do something or not. It is more complex than whether there is a responsibility to protect.

The real dilemma is whether, in a given case, in the midst of such confusion, action should be taken however partial and irresponsible it may be. This is a dilemma of politics and illustrates that the ethics of intervention can never be separated from the politics of intervention.


Contrary to the claims of national security policy-makers and self-styled political realists, the responsibility to protect is a part of political practice. The problem is not that national interests trump humanitarian ones but that interests, purposes and objectives are always multiple, shifting and contradictory.

Those that seek to create general and formal institutions and legal procedures to make R2P more effective, accountable and transparent are building a house on sand. They are peddling a myth that the political decisions of intervention can be reduced to objective judgments and impartial processes.

If Western governments were truly committed to human security in Libya, they would not have backed the Gaddafi regime and have allowed their societies to become so thirsty for its oil. That they have shows that there is more at stake in Libya than humanitarian protection.

The responsibility to protect doctrine includes a responsibility to prevent, yet – as a globally-sanctioned policy platform – it does not question the fundamentals of the international economy and polity. It does not call for a reduction in consumption of commodities to limit the reliance on corrupt regimes, or for measures to prevent leaders like Gaddafi accruing billions of dollars in foreign banks.

Rather than playing at being God in moments of intervention, it would be wise to commit to values of justice and peace over the long-term and thus reduce the need for such perilous acts as the military intervention we now witness.

The NATO action remains a huge gamble, not for the Western interveners who can fail to meet their objectives with little lost than a few more 100s of millions in defence spending, but for the Libyan people, who continue to suffer at the hands of national and international powers and authorities. Surely we must demand better than bombing from the sky in the name of the self-satisfying rhetoric of R2P.


© John Heathershaw is Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and the College of Social Sciences and International Relations at the University of Exeter, UK. His teaching and research interests are in three broad areas: Central Asian studies, including the former Soviet republics and Afghanistan; the inter-disciplinary study of humanitarianism, security assistance and intervention, especially post-conflict peacebuilding; and methodological issues around the use of discourse analysis and political ethnography in empirical analysis. Dr Heathershaw has spent several years working for governmental, international non-governmental and academic institutions in and on Central Asia. He is also an associate fellow of the Exeter Centre for Ethno-political Studies (EXCEPS), a research associate of Exeter Turkish Studies and is a co-convenor of the research group on Communism and Post-Communism. His most recent book is Post-conflict Tajikistan: the politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (London: Routledge, 2009).

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