By Lisa Hultman
World leaders met recently in Berlin to discuss solutions for ending the civil conflict in Libya. The United Nations (UN)-backed government currently lacks control over large parts of the country, while the opposition is backed by several countries—Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, among others. Hundreds of people have been killed in the last year alone, and thousands displaced.
This was surely not the anticipated outcome of the NATO-led military intervention in 2011—an intervention authorized by the UN and justified in the name of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a doctrine adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, that commits countries and the international community to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Libya is the only time in history that military intervention has been justified on the grounds of R2P.
Why did it fail? And is R2P dead?
In early 2011, it was relatively easy to invoke R2P and get the main international players on board to support military intervention in Libya. No one—even regional organizations like the Arab League—liked Gaddafi, and the proposed solution for stopping the escalating violence against civilians seemed easy: a military aerial campaign.
By the fall of 2011, the intervention was considered a success by many, as seen in coverage in The Guardian, New York Times, and Foreign Policy. And indeed, the intervention did manage to stop the campaign of violence against civilians. It looked like a new beginning for the Libyan people. Or did it? A more critical analysis suggests that the intervention actually prolonged the conflict and made the situation worse for civilians.
The bigger problem is what followed—or rather, what did not follow the intervention. The international community had focused myopically on the responsibility to react, but ignored the responsibility to rebuild.
Although R2P is aimed at stopping the worst kinds of atrocities, the original idea also acknowledges that, once the atrocities have ended, reducing the risk of future violence requires a commitment to rebuilding the country. There’s good reason for this. As civil war experts have demonstrated: in order to create stability and reduce the risk of a return to civil war, societies have to be transformed. This includes, for example, promoting economic development, reducing inequality between groups, and building trustworthy institutions. A post-conflict society must go from simply the absence of war to a “quality peace.”
But a focus on rebuilding was absent in Libya.
Indeed, although protection of civilians was the stated primary goal of the intervention—in keeping with the doctrine of R2P that the highly consequential move of military action should be made only with the intention of halting human suffering—NATO’s goals seemed quickly to evolve beyond that, to an intent to overthrow Gaddafi. Perhaps NATO leaders thought it was a necessary means to an end. But the fact that the intervening countries considered the job done once Gaddafi was out of the picture suggests otherwise.
Research shows that civil wars that end in rebel victory or foreign-imposed regime change are less likely to relapse into renewed fighting. However, in Libya, foreign intervention did not support a strong victor who could create stability. Instead, there was only a power vacuum, which generated new competition for power.
As we learned in Iraq, rebuilding a country is much harder than getting rid of a dictator.
What is the path forward for Libya now? UN envoy Ghassan Salamé has called on foreign powers to end their military support to armed groups in Libya. This is one important step to solve the conflict and reduce human suffering. Indeed, research shows that civil conflicts with foreign military support are less likely to end, more likely to recur, and increase the risk of violence against civilians. Think Syria. An end to the conflict in Libya requires a halt to foreign intervention and proxy war.
Responsibility to protect embodies the best ideals of the international community—the idea that the international community can and must commit to protect ordinary people from the worst of political violence and suffering. But applying R2P is far from straightforward, as the case of Libya shows. For R2P to be durable, the international community must look beyond military intervention and consider other means of protection. Scholars have suggested that the unified international diplomatic response to the escalating violence in Kenya following the presidential election in 2007, was an effective measure to quell the violence. Next time leaders invoke R2P, they should make use of the whole intervention toolbox beyond military intervention, investing both diplomatic and economic resources, just as originally intended with the R2P.