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Understanding the United Nations Responsibility to Protect Initiative

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By Jacques Roussellier
Faculty Member, International Relations at American Public University

The NATO-led intervention in Libya has sharpened division among governments and experts on the actual interpretation and implementation of the 2005 United Nation’s responsibility to protect (R2P) initiative, particularly in light of procrastination with Syria, and one could add, northern Mali. The international military intervention in Libya has raised the issue of the relevance of R2P as a humanitarian intervention principle for regime change. The issue is broader than the legitimacy of the NATO-led operation in actively supporting the Libyan opposition and hunting down Gaddafi on the basis of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized all necessary measures to protect civilian populations in Libya without explicitly allowing regime change. In question is the principle of R2P itself, linking the use of force for humanitarian protection with regime change. The varying paradigmatic perspectives on the Libyan model provide stark evidence of conflicting interpretations and expectations of R2P intentions and operational implications.

The responsibility to protect contains mostly language on states’ primary responsibility to protect their population from egregious violations of fundamental rights and the corresponding commitment by the international community to assist states as well as take preventive actions when appropriate. In fact, the premise of R2P is to maintain non-intervention in internal affairs of states. The implementation of the R2P principle shifts the definition of state sovereignty from territorial control to effective provider of civilian protection. Of the seven criteria that define the operational legitimacy of R2P (i.e., just cause, right authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality of means, reasonable prospects of success and post-intervention strategy), the ultimate goal of regime change poses challenges to the application of the right intention. It explicitly excludes regime overthrow as a legitimate and primary purpose and proportionality (Gaddafi physical elimination) criteria.

Supporters of the legal as well as strictly humanitarian and ethical approach to R2P should be deeply concerned about the misuse of R2P and the UN Security Council in overlooking transparency and due process when making regime change instrumental in securing international civilian protection in Libya. The strategic school of thought would applaud R2P’s delivery of the right conceptual and political framework for the international community’s unilateral use of force in the Libyan civil war and regime change agenda. However, the lessons learned, as called for by Russia and China, may present significant obstacles to the formulation of rules and doctrine that should guide the use of coercive force in R2P situations, including a regime change strategy. States will always prefer R2P’s current constructive ambiguity to any clarifying and abiding doctrinal interpretation.

 

About the Author:

Jacques Roussellier is an instructor at American Military University. He was a specialist with the World Bank Group from 2003 to 2006. He served as spokesperson for United Nations peacekeeping operations in Western Sahara from 1999 to 2001. Roussellier was a Political Affairs Officer with United Nations peacekeeping operations in Tajikistan and the Central African Republic from 1997 to 1999. Previously, he was a Human Rights Advisor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from1992 to 1997. Roussellier holds a Masters in Theology (University of Geneva) and MALD from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

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