International Law

Libya Chaos Means a Backward Step for Responsibility to Protect

By Matthew Waxman
Tuesday, August 5, 2014, 2:15 PM

Over on CNN’s Global Public Square, I’ve written about recent events in Libya – including the evacuation of American and many foreign diplomats – and what they mean for the Responsibility to Protect. The piece begins:

The 2011 international coalition intervention in Libya was supposed to be a step forward for the Responsibility to Protect doctrine – the notion that if a state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, it becomes the international community's responsibility to do so. Tragically, the current collapse of governance and bloody infighting among factional militias there will instead result in a step backwards for this important principle.

A broader point of the essay is that for highly contested normative concepts to take hold – whether regarding humanitarian intervention or, say, proposals to reinterpret self-defense to deal with new threats – the after-effects of military action and its visible results matter greatly:

Advocates of international legal reform have a particular tendency to focus on formal expressions of support or dissent – Security Council or General Assembly votes, for example – in measuring the progress of international norms. Yet the success or failure of normative developments depends heavily on results. Indeed, one of the very arguments leveled by states hostile to, or skeptical of, the Responsibility to Protect is that outside military intervention is likely to sow turmoil. That’s what makes the current Libyan collapse and militia warfare so tragic, not only for its population and region, but for the ideals that justified intervention.

I conclude: “The reality is that the legacy for international norms of military intervention is still being written and it is unclear how, looking back, the Libya 'model' will be viewed. That being said, it is hard to imagine the failure of the intervening powers to either predict the current chaos or invest in necessary follow-up to prevent it will prove to have done anything to strengthen the case for military intervention in the future.”