This is a guest note by Francesco Femia, Program Director at the Connect U.S. Fund, where he directs programs ranging from climate and development policy, to mass atrocity prevention and response.
The Intervention in Libya: A Milestone in Human Progress
When explaining his decision to authorize a military intervention in Libya (which he actually did well before Monday’s speech), President Obama stated: “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy.” There was history in that statement. It was the latest affirmation of a human rights movement that grew out of an unexpectedly violent decade.
Following the brutal massacres committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, the world asked itself — at what point is it our responsibility to stop the slaughter of innocent people? In response, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked a group of prominent human rights leaders to answer the question. The result, debuting publicly in 2001, revolutionized the concept of sovereignty by arguing that when governments fail in their responsibility to protect their populations from mass atrocities (regardless of whether it is unable or unwilling), that responsibility falls to the international community. This doctrine, dubbed the Responsibility to Protect (or R2P), was largely endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005, pledging that the international community would act in such cases “through appropriate and necessary means.”
Since the doctrine’s debut over a decade ago, mass atrocities have occurred and gone largely unchecked in close to twenty countries, most visibly and tragically in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Millions of innocent people have been slaughtered, largely without consequences for the perpetrators.
Then in late February of 2011, the Responsibility to Protect was put to the test again. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, likely conscious of the international community’s abysmal record on preventing atrocities, told residents of the eastern city of Benghazi that he would “show no mercy,” vowing to find them “in their closets.” Gaddafi was threatening the slaughter of over 100,000 people, and given his recent brutal actions in the west, there was every reason to believe he would carry it out. The international community faced a choice: to act with the necessary force needed to prevent a massacre, or to continue its track record of inaction.
This time, it acted. The U.N. Security Council, with the unprecedented support of the Arab League, authorized the world’s first measure to truly enforce the Responsibility to Protect: a military intervention with a mandate to protect civilians and to use “all necessary measures” to do so. It was a moment for enforcing justice on a massive scale, and President Obama seized it.
No matter how the international operation in Libya turns out, we should reflect on the enormity of this decision.
For the first time in history, the international community collectively decided to use legitimate force to stop a leader from committing mass atrocities against his own people. That puts us in a new chapter of human history – one where people struggling for human rights – or more simply, for their right to not be massacred with impunity – have an international system to look to for support. That’s a world where leaders will think twice, or not at all, about physically assaulting the people they should be protecting.
International action in Libya marked a major moment in human progress. The question now is: will the international community consolidate that moment and prevent mass atrocities elsewhere?
— Francesco Femia