Responsibility to Protect and the Libyan Intervention

Just before the rebels won the war in Libya, peace researcher Ernie Regehr and Green Party MP Elizabeth May shared their views on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine with Metta Spencer.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2011-10-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: Peace activists don’t all agree about the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. This issue re-emerged during the intervention in Libya, which was justified on the basis of R2P principles. I’d like for you to share your thinking about R2P, as an international law—I don’t think it’s that yet, but it could be—and how that related to your decision about supporting the intervention in Libya.

ERNIE REGEHR: I think the R2P doctrine is a very positive development. Its foundation is our common humanity. We all have responsibility for, and some obligation toward, one another. The way that the norm was approved at the UN in 2005 emphasized prevention and peaceful methods—initially referring to Chapter VI—prevention—and if that fails, moving on to Chapter VII and enforcement. It’s a norm, but a long way from being international law. The concept is important, but the capacity of the international community to implement it is quite another matter. When the Libyan issue arose, it seemed clear that the international community did have an obligation. But we have obligations in many places that we don’t meet. Furthermore, the international community repeatedly fails at prevention, leaving much more limited and difficult options. When the focus turns to military options, the responses will be predictably inconsistent due to differing levels of political will and differing views on military feasibility.

What turned the tide on the Libya case was the support of the African Union and the Arab League for military intervention. Those two bodies gave urgency to the possibility of massive attacks on civilians in the city of Benghazi if nothing was done. There was very little time. So my view was that the international community really had the obligation to respond, even though there was no clarity as to what the final outcome would be.

That’s the nature of the beast: These events happen in the midst of great crisis, instability, and uncertainty. If the international community were going to intervene with protective force only when there was certainty as to the outcome, there would be no interventions on behalf of vulnerable people. Of course, there have been many troubling developments since then.

ELIZABETH MAY: Up to now we don’t disagree at all. In my speech in the House of Commons I made it clear that, had I been a member of parliament when this first decision was taken to intervene in Libya to protect civilians from Gadhafi’s forces, I would have supported it. It’s important to recognize the Responsibility to Protect. One reason why I refused to vote for the continuation of the mission is that I believe the mission has shifted to something quite different from Responsibility to Protect since we first became involved in Libya. It actually jeopardizes the usefulness of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in future situations—and even now in Syria. You’re quite right: There was the support of the African Union and lots of other partners and diplomatic groupings around the world, and there was imminent danger to the civilians in Libya. It made sense to protect them, to make a no-fly zone, or whatever was called for.

SPENCER: What were your concerns, Elizabeth?

MAY: Once in Libya, the world community started talking about removing Gadhafi. Sarkozy and David Cameron said that they were protecting civilians, but Stephen Harper immediately said that we’re really hoping to get rid of Gadhafi—but we’re not talking about that yet. He was the only world leader to say immediately that the long-term goal was to remove Gadhafi. As the coalition got involved in Libya, we shifted to taking sides in a civil war, saying that now we want the rebel council to become the legitimate government of Libya. They decided to have aerial bombardment, in the hope that one of those bombs would hit Gadhafi. Aerial bombardment is a war tactic that kills civilians.

It’s counterproductive in terms of getting people to feel like surrendering. It actually fortifies the will of people on the ground never to surrender, and it causes terrible loss of life. So when I voted against the continuation of the missions, I made it clear that I would have voted for it the first time. But we actually rejected a peace proposal that President Zuma brought forward that started with a ceasefire. If you’re really operating out of Responsibility to Protect, you embrace any chance of a ceasefire and then work toward peace talks.

Ernie, I agree with you about Responsibility to Protect. But shifting to “Let’s get rid of Gadhafi” is actually weakening our ability to use R2P, for instance, in Syria, where I think we should be engaged. Civilian lives are being lost there and protests are being squashed with brute force. The difference between Libya and Syria is that we can’t get China and Russia to vote with us on Syria because they point out (I think rightly) that nations wanting to get rid of Gadhafi used Responsibility to Protect as a Trojan Horse to get into Libya when their long-term objective was quite different from protecting civilian lives.

SPENCER: I have two lines of questioning. First, US Defense Secretary Bob Gates stated beforehand that if you want a no-fly zone, you have to begin by bombing the airports. I wondered whether it really was necessary. Ernie, do you think it’s necessary as a military tactic to bomb the airports before issuing the order against taking off in planes?

REGEHR: I’m certainly no military tactician but the tactics in this case were heavily shaped by the politics behind the UN mandate. There was a strict prohibition against any ground forces. Had that not been the condition, the resolution wouldn’t have passed and the Arab League wouldn’t have supported it. That means that the only military means available was bombardment. To create and enforce a no-fly zone I think the conventional military wisdom is that you have to ground the airforce and eliminate air defence capabilities. So that meant attacks on Libyan air and air-defence facilities, plus attacks on ground forces in line with the UN resolution’s mandate to protect threatened population centres like Benghazi.

When NATO went way beyond that and got into attempted precision bombardment of high-value targets, it was implicitly targeting Gadhafi, the person. That’s when I think they went off the rails. The responsible thing would have been to confine itself to grounding the air force and then maintaining a monitoring role, and when they saw ground forces gathering in order to attack a civilian population centre, then they could intervene against those forces.

SPENCER: By bombing them?

REGEHR: That’s the only way possible because of the way the resolution was drafted. But I remember saying, in discussions at the time, that the real problem was that much of this combat is urban, and you can’t fight urban battles from the air. Outside Benghazi is the only place, I think, where the Libyan army massed artillery and tanks to stage an attack. They found out quickly enough that those would be targets in a bombardment so they didn’t do that again. So I think that the expectations were too high. I think it was important to ground the air force and to prevent the ground attacks on Benghazi, but then NATO needed to recognize that not much more could be done militarily.

Then, as Elizabeth was saying, there should have been energetic support for the African Union’s diplomatic initiatives. The Arab League was never highly engaged, but the UN special envoy has been engaged and others have supported it. That’s where I think NATO was always lukewarm and, according to some reports, actively sought to marginalize the Zuma effort. Canada really took diplomacy to mean only recognizing the rebel forces. That was another significant mistake. It’s not up to Canada, Washington, or anyone else to decide who are the legitimate representatives of the people. I think it was appropriate to say that the National Transitional Council was one of the possible legitimate representatives of some of the Libyan people but we shouldn’t make the real determination. We should be developing a mechanism by which Libyan people can begin to make those choices.

SPENCER: Okay, you’re both saying that if it had gone according to the original plan, it was justifiable, but things went wrong. Now I want to explore two other options. One was simply not intervening. Lots of peace activists would simply have said, “We do not use military means, period.” I’m on the steering committee of the International Peace Bureau, and we were in Barcelona at the time. I was the only person in favor of the no-fly zone motion, which was all that was being considered at the time.

The other option I would like to consider is something that neither of you has proposed—something like a classical peacekeeping force. Would it have been practical to interpose peacekeepers on the ground between Gadhafi’s people and the Benghazi rebels, and simply say: “Neither side can shoot at the other side. We will stop you if you try to aggress against the other. And we will now begin negotiations toward a peace settlement.”?

MAY: Well, first to your second point, Metta—the idea of sending in peacekeepers. I think there’s a role for peacekeepers, absolutely, and Canada’s turned away from our traditional peacekeeping role. We’re now one of the least engaged countries of the world in peacekeeping. In looking at where we have a responsibility to protect and have been ignoring that responsibility, there’s the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there is a UN peacekeeping force and where the United Nations has asked Canada three times to send a small group of three or four people with military command experience. General Andrew Leslie wanted to go but the Harper government said no, we’re not sending three or four people to the Congo. So that’s another problem I have with the Harper government’s approach. His answer stands in sharp contrast to engaging in Libya.

But I do think I would not send peacekeeping forces. The UN peacekeeping forces go to countriies where they are welcomed—there is a peace agreement to enforce. To suggest that they could go in before that was in place would be just to send them to their deaths for no reason. It wouldn’t have been a wise use of peacekeepers.

I agree with Ernie that military action to protect civilian lives was justified. Then came the offer of an agreement that the African Union put together that President Zuma brought forward. Strangely (and who knows whether he would actually live up to it) Gadhafi said “Yes, I’ll agree to the ceasefire under these terms.” It was the rebel forces who said, “We don’t agree to any ceasefire as long as Colonel Gadhafi is in the country.”

The NATO coalition said that if the rebel forces won’t agree to those terms, we won’t agree either. That was mind-boggling. They should have said, “We’re sorry, rebel forces. We’re not here to win this war for you. We’re here to protect civilian lives. A ceasefire will be closely monitored. We’ll make sure Gadhafi lives up to his word and if he doesn’t, we’ll resume bombing. We’ll have a ceasefire, followed by peace talks.”

At that point, there could potentially be a role for peacekeepers on the ground to make sure the ceasefire is real and that civilians could securely go about their daily lives. That was all lost as soon as we said we’re here to get rid of Colonel Gadhafi.

REGEHR: Just to pick up on peacekeeping, and then we’ll go on to the more fundamental question about military intervention. But on the peacekeeping, there was for a time growing recognition that there was a military stalemate. Even France and the UK changed their tune on Gadhafi, saying, as long as he’s out of power, he can stay in Libya. Some other writers were saying—and I agreed with them—that pressure needs to be put on the National Transitional Council to come to the table without making Gadhafi’s exit a precondition. What was needed was a ceasefire without conditions, and then immediately going into talks and figuring out a way of monitoring the ceasefire. That’s what peacekeeping forces traditionally are there to do. We needed to see the military stalemate as an opportunity (an additional opportunity currently being Ramadan), rather than as a problem. It was an opportunity to get both sides into a negotiation. Both sides have an interest in a ceasefire. At the same time it’s hard to imagine that Colonel Gadhafi could have led the delegation from his regime in peace talks. I don’t think that would have gone very far.

SPENCER: Who could take the initiative for something like that?

REGEHR: The UN. The special envoy of the UN secretary general, Abdel-Elah al-Khatib, had been doing shuttle diplomacy. Turkey had indicated that it was going to coordinate its diplomatic efforts more closely with the African Union. China had been talking to the African Union. So there was a period of diplomatic activity and Western governments should have been fully on board with those efforts, recognizing that the stalemate a genuine diplomatic opportunity. Then it would have made sense to think about a monitoring force with some North African-Middle Eastern elements to it. It is still a situation that cries out for a peacekeeping/monitoring force, but unfortunately the NTC has flatly rejected that option—and that may yet turn out to have been a major mistake.

SPENCER: Do you see any particular country that might be enthusiastic about what you propose?

REGEHR: Turkey is a good choice, in that they indicated that they were making a move to the Peace and Security Council of the African Union. They’re Muslim. They have credibility within NATO and the West. China is now making more positive noises in that regard. So there is some genuine possibility.

MAY: Yeah, I agree. Abdel-Elah al-Khatib got a fair response from China—

REGEHR: Yes, he was just there.

MAY: —a lead role for the United Nations to negotiate a solution. I think, unfortunately, our own government is interested in winning this as a war and killing Gadhafi. That’s not going to help us. The other thing we haven’t mentioned is that NATO seems to be targeting water supplies in the bombing. Under Responsibility to Protect doctrine you don’t bomb water supplies.

REGEHR: No, no.

MAY: You can imagine how dismayed I was to be the only member of parliament to vote against the continuation of the bombing under current circumstances. Certainly a lot of other MPs would personally not have voted that way, but their party brass told them to do so. I was pleased to hear Paul Dewar, a very fine person in the New Democratic Party, talking about how we need more diplomacy. It is time to be pushing our government and talking in public about it: What are our goals here? And how are we ever going to achieve them by military means? We can’t! We need to push diplomacy more.

SPENCER: Can we switch now to discussing the real pacifist position? I think we need to explore the reasoning that was going on there.

REGEHR: Well, I certainly am sympathetic to that view and I come out of that tradition. But, if we’re going to say, “No military intervention at any time!” we have to recognize that there can be dreadful human costs to that as well in some circumstances. When prevention has demonstrably failed, refusing a military option is not cost-free for the vulnerable people who are being attacked. Remember, the violence didn’t begin in Libya the day that NATO started bombing. It started well in advance. It is true that in applying the R2P doctrine there’s way too much attention placed on the military element and not enough on the Chapter VI peaceful methods element, which was emphasized in the UN resolution. We need to do a lot more about non-military intervention—preventive diplomacy. An example of R2P being used as a preventive tool quite effectively was in Kenya, 2008. After the election, when violence threatened to continue, Kofi Annan went in and very explicitly identified with the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. He undertook diplomacy and helped the Kenyans get to a government of national unity. A lot more violence was averted in the process.

MAY: Yes.

REGEHR: So there are times when that can happen and the international community needs to be more alert to them. But there are times when the options are all bad. You have to take measures to prevent the immediate escalation of violence without knowing with certainty what the outcome is going to be.

MAY: Just to place the Green Party’s position on the spectrum of pacifist positions, there isn’t any other party in Canada so rooted in peace and nonviolence as a goal. Of the six Green principles, one is adopting a culture of peace and nonviolence. Green parties around the world, particularly the Germans, struggled with the intervention in Bosnia, which shattered the party. Joschka Fischer, who was foreign minister of Germany, was a Green but was pragmatic about Bosnia and felt that Germany should be involved in the NATO mission. The German Greens were in that coalition government; it was very controversial. So the Green position has always been to favor peacekeeping in the larger meaning of the word: making peace, keeping peace. Developing a culture of peace and nonviolence requires consistent study and investment. That’s why the Green Party of Canada favors the creation of a department of peace.

When conflict is boiling over someplace in the world, the typical Canadian pattern is to get involved, worry about it, fuss about getting a peace deal—and then walk away. We don’t maintain a consistent engagement to ensure that democratic institutions are restored, that human rights are protected, that civil society flourishes. So it’s a much broader agenda than just the cessation of conflict. The investment in peace is more important than preparation for war. There’s a contradiction between the budgets required for peace and to end hunger around the world and what the military gets. So the Green Party in Canada is closest aligned to the peace movement. That said, in other instances we would consider military intervention, but only for the purpose of restoring peace and protecting human life. In Afghanistan, as soon as Stephen Harper announced we were there for the war against terrorism, we said Canada shouldn’t be in this NATO mission at all. If we’re engaged in Afghanistan, it should only be through a United Nations effort for peacekeeping.

SPENCER: Ernie, how do you react to her platform?

REGEHR: Sure. I was saying something along the same lines. The international community has to be more engaged in the preventive elements of Responsibility to Protect. In 2005 at the world summit where the Responsibility to Protect doctrine was approved, it was Chapter VI that got most of the attention. Peaceful resolution of conflict. The mitigation of human suffering. I was involved in drafting the World Council of Churches resolution on Responsibility to Protect. It was adopted in Brazil in 2006, and recognized in extraordinary circumstances a need for military intervention, but then immediately it said: We don’t think these problems are solvable by military means. R2P’s purpose must fundamentally be to create opportunities for political, economic, and social resolution of conflicts. It’s not for the people with guns in their hands to decide winners and losers and who are legitimate and who are illegitimate.

SPENCER: It sounds as if you’re agreed. But neither of you has spoken about the preliminaries—the alternative routes that could have been taken before the violence began. I was dismayed by the contagion effect after Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution. The Arab Spring began to take place in a number of countries but, whereas the Egyptians had trained themselves to manage their demonstrations without recourse to violence, had been reading Gene Sharp and so on, the other countries were doing this as copycats, without really knowing what was involved. My concern is that nonviolence, to be effective, needs a lot of preparation and discipline. I wonder whether you were as concerned as I was about the likelihood that the other rebels would “lose it” and begin resorting to violence, as happened in Libya.

REGEHR: It’s the people of Libya who decide when the moment comes for them to resist. You’re right that in many of these countries there could be a lot of nonviolence training. In Egypt, an important factor was the way in which the Egyptian army interpreted its own interests (and it’s important to acknowledge that the approach and tactics of the protesters helped to shape the army’s response). Had it responded the way the Gadhafi regime responded, the situation might have been different. But the opportunities and need for nonviolence training are huge. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine typically and unfortunately only kicks in during the later stages of a crisis, when the options are much more limited.

SPENCER: Do you both see nonviolence training as a part of the mandate of the department of peace?

MAY: Absolutely. I talked about this long-term investment issue. I remember talking with a diplomat from Northern Africa who was involved in the peace negotiations in Sudan, maybe fourteen years ago. He said: The peace agreement that we had could have been kept in place if the international community had provided funding. If they had got anything out of the peace agreement, they would have kept it. We could have said: Because you have this peace agreement, we’re going to make sure that people have access to nutrition.

Stephen Harper is trying to remake Canada’s sense of itself as a warrior nation. This isn’t in our DNA, but we can’t be complacent about this. People’s sense of self gets changed by a lot of stuff that’s made up by public relations. Nowadays they have someone from the military speak at every citizenship ceremony.

REGEHR: Yeah, I read that.

MAY: Someone from the military stands up and says: People died to keep you free! This is very dangerous. We’d prided ourselves on the legacy of Lester B. Pearson and the peace prize. We’re seeing a concerted effort by the current government to change who we think we are. So yes, the department of peace should have elements that deal with conflict resolution. As Canadians we want to work as a force for good in the world. There’s two places in the Hebrew Testament where you can find swords and plowshares in the same sentence. In one we beat our swords into plowshares, and in the other we beat our plowshares into swords. We have a government now that likes the latter interpretation.

REGEHR: There’s an unrealistic and dangerous international understanding of what superior force can achieve. The lessons of Libya and of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that we cannot achieve by force what we say we want it to produce. There’s a hubris involved if that assumes that as soon as you’ve got superior force on your side, you can determine outcomes. Well, you can’t determine neat political and social outcomes, and we need to recognize the severe limits on the effectiveness of force. You can’t overturn certain deeply rooted political conditions just by bombing the hell out of them. Force turns out to be impotent in most of these deep social conflicts, which are characteristic of most modern conflicts. Most conflicts are of the type that people in the Arab Spring have been confronting. These are deeply rooted social problems, and a wide range of economic grievances are in play. There need to be reliable security institutions and means of protecting people, to be sure, but force has a very limited capacity to respond to such social challenges and grievances.

SPENCER: Well, you seem both to be on the same page!

It’s heartening to know that the way forward is at least clear to some people. Thank you both.

Elizabeth May, M.P. is leader of Canada’s Green Party. Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Research Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, the University of Waterloo. Metta Spencer is Editor of Peace and Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2011

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