Saving humans through military force?

Dr Edward Newman

Dr Edward Newman on whether cross-border intervention is justified to prevent or stop atrocities.

Two years ago the UN Security Council authorised all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in Libya. Resolution 1973 precipitated an international military attack against Libya for human protection purposes and was heralded as a major step forward in the international protection of civilians.

Two years on, the implementation of Resolution 1973 is regarded as being highly controversial, and perhaps even a step back in the protection agenda. It also now serves as a point of tension between the Western states which led the attack on Libya and important rising powers, notably Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the BRICS).

The broader context of this controversy relates to some of the most difficult questions in international law and politics. How should international society collectively, or individual actors, respond to grave and widespread abuses of human rights? How should the norm of non-intervention be balanced against the human rights of individuals in peril? Should some form of force be used, across state borders, to prevent or stop human suffering, without the consent (and against the wishes) of the state in which these human rights abuses are taking place? What form should this intervention take? Which actors should protect humans from egregious human rights abuse when their government is unwilling or unable to do so, and under what legal, political or moral authority? 

These questions have been the subject of perennial and inconclusive debates for decades – perhaps centuries – although there have arguably been substantial changes in the terms of the debate since the end of the Cold War. Human tragedies in the midst of conflict in places such as Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Sudan, amongst many others, have galvanised international actors and organisations such as the UN and consensus has gradually emerged on the principle that atrocities should be addressed.

A number of controversies make the theory and practice of ‘humanitarian intervention’ problematic. Most obviously, the use of military force for human protection purposes is in tension with state sovereignty, the bedrock of international order. Such force is also very selective; without exception it is something that is undertaken by powerful states against weaker, poor states in the developing world. Inevitably, this raises the impression that humanitarian intervention is a hegemonic tool undertaken for geo-strategic purposes.

The 2005 UN World Summit sought to define an international ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) humans in such a way that addressed these controversies so that international action to prevent or stop terrible human rights abuses could be agreed. UN members accepted that individual states have the responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and to prevent such crimes, including their incitement. The agreement stipulated that the international community should encourage and help states to exercise this responsibility and support the UN in establishing an early warning capability. It also indicated that the international community, through the UN, has the responsibility to help to protect populations from these atrocities where national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations.

Since 2005 the R2P principle has attracted a great deal of support and, to some extent, it is influencing diplomatic processes. Security Council Resolutions underscored the responsibility to protect civilians in a number of cases – notably Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire and Libya – and the protection agenda has been reflected in broader and increased attention to civilians in armed conflict. The UN Secretary-General appointed special advisers on the prevention of genocide and on implementing R2P, and produced a substantial report, ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’, which sought to generate agreement on how R2P could be operationalised.

However, the aftermath of the Libya resolution has exposed the fundamental difficulties of applying R2P. Many non-western states, and in particular the BRICS, believe that Resolution 1973 was abused by NATO states as a pretext for pursuing regime change and that it was stretched to cover activities not authorised in the resolution, such as attacks against government and media facilities and government forces which did not appear to represent a direct threat to citizens. The apparent unwillingness of NATO states involved in the military operation to negotiate with the government of Libya for a cessation of violence, the assistance of these states to the rebels – including the transfer of weapons in violation of resolutions 1970 and 1973 – and the speed with which key members of the alliance recognised the Libyan Transitional National Council, all reinforced the impression that the intervention went beyond the protection of human rights.

The legacy of this is all too clear to see with Syria, where Russia and China have vetoed Security Council action on three occasions, specifically referring to the abuse of UN authority in Libya.

It seems that in the most difficult cases – such as Libya and Syria – the application of R2P raises questions and controversies that have been associated with the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’ for decades – or even centuries. 

How can the normative progress that has been achieved in recent years be sustained? It is important to separate the protection of humans from regime change; the legacy of Resolution 1973 is that R2P enabled the overthrowing of Gadhafi, and this is not helpful for the development of the principle. Also, greater efforts are needed to address broader questions about multilateral decision-making and accountability, and the manner in which international norms are promoted. At present the highest arbiter of R2P is the UN Security Council; yet the legitimacy of the Security Council is – in the eyes of some – compromised by its structures and voting-rights. 

There is also a need for greater consistency in international attention to human rights abuses, both in general and in relation to R2P atrocities, to address the impression that action is only taken when it dovetails with the interests of major – especially Western – powers. Finally, when such international action is taken, some form of monitoring is necessary to ensure that the action remains firmly within the terms of the mandate which authorised it. Saving humans can sometimes involve the use of force – but any such intervention must be seen to be legitimate.

Edward Newman is now Professor of International Security in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds