Do We Allow Gaddafi to “Cleanse Libya House by House”?

War and Peace

It has been just over a week since the protests in Libya began, and it is painfully clear this situation will not be going the way of Egypt. With Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi calling for blood, protestors are finding themselves on the receiving end not of tear gas but of bullets. Many, including Libya’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, are concerned this will quickly devolve into a full-scale genocide of those opposed to Gaddafi’s rule. Though a few areas in the east, such as the city of Benghazi, have been taken over by pro-democracy protestors, there is no guarantee such achievements will lead to the end of the violence.

The international community should not be fooled into thinking further action is no longer required on its part.

With the death toll rising daily and violence occurring not only on the ground but through aerial attacks, the international community must begin to ask itself how to best respond in order to protect the civilians in Libya. Discussions have begun of the need to implement the Responsibility to Protect (commonly referred to as R2P).

Muammar Gaddafi stars in "The Diary of a Mad Man."

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) introduced R2P. This report was compiled as a result of the sense of a growing need for the “internationalization of the human conscience.” It was the intention of this commission to create a sense of responsibility among states; to move from the understanding of states as in control of their peoples to that of being responsible to them. A state’s sovereignty would then be tied to its ability or willingness to live up to its responsibility to its people. Thus, when a state chooses to commit violent atrocities against its own people, it loses its moral claim to sovereignty and opens itself up to international intervention. While there were a few detractors (including Libya), a condensed version of R2P was eventually signed unanimously as a part of the 2005 World Summit Outcome document.

In watching events unfold over the past week, it has become apparent that the current situation in Libya is perhaps a textbook example of where the Responsibility to Protect is designed to be implemented. This is a case in which the government is unable or unwilling to protect its own people from harm (in this instance it happens to be the perpetrator of violence). As a result of signing the 2005 Outcome Document, the international community has agreed that it has a responsibility to protect civilians from such atrocities. Furthermore, as a signatory itself, Libya ostensibly agrees with the principle and acknowledges the responsibility of the international community to intercede on behalf of civilians. Though I would argue Libya’s signing of R2P does more to highlight the lack of concern among states that such principles would ever be enforced, than actually binding them to its tenets.

Ultimately, the real question here is not whether the international community has a responsibility to protect Libyans, but rather whether it will live up to that responsibility. According to the ICISS, “[R2P] implies above all else a responsibility to react to situations of compelling need for human protection.” With the world transfixed on the violence in this North African country, describing the Libyan people’s need for protection from Gaddafi as compelling would be an understatement.

At the time of this writing, the UN Security Council had merely issued a statement condemning the actions of the Libyan government. The statement calls on the Libyan government to “meet its responsibility to protect its population.” Additionally, the council requests the allowance of immediate access for international human rights monitors and humanitarian agencies. This statement is a necessary first step of the council, but hopefully further action will be taken soon. A key factor in our responsibility to react to atrocities around the globe is the imperative of acting in a timely manner. To delay in reacting and allow further violence to be inflicted on a people unnecessarily is no better than committing the violence oneself.

It is important to note that international intervention does not necessarily mean a military takeover of the country. Military intervention must always be a last resort, yet there remains a definite need for the international community to do more here than issue statements condemning the violence. Libya arguably falls under what the ICISS refers to as an “extreme case.” Such cases are defined as instances “when major harm to civilians is occurring or imminently apprehended, and the state in question is unable or unwilling to end the harm, or is itself the perpetrator.”

At this point, it is absolutely essential for the UN and the international community at large to push at minimum for the placement of human rights monitors on the ground in Libya. When a leader threatens to “cleanse Libya house by house” the need for action becomes undeniable. States must not allow fear of political backlash to cause hesitation on a matter as important as civilian protection. For it is only when we place humanity in the forefront and politics on the sidelines that we will finally begin to make our way toward a peaceful community of states.

A few years ago, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated simply, yet profoundly, “what we seek to protect reflects what we value.” In the case of Libya, we must ask ourselves what is of utmost value; ensuring the sovereignty of a state inflicting violence on its peoples, or the lives of the civilians striving to create a peaceful future.

This piece has been cross-posted by our partner site, World Policy Journal's blog.

Humanitarian Aid, Libya. R2P, United Nations