Canada, Libya and R2P

After the dismal failures of non-intervention by the international community in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia; after the controversial NATO bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo crisis, in which Canadian Forces aircraft played a lead role; after the initial lies and “misstatements of truth” and the imaginative but transparent post-hoc humanitarian justifications offered by the Bush administration for its invasion of Iraq; and as the US and NATO-led  intervention in Afghanistan slowly morphed from the defeat of al-Qaeda and the Taleban into a far more ambitious state and nation-building exercise, the Canadian-inspired doctrine and norm called The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) slowly gained international political traction.

From its unveiling in December 2001, to its adoption in carefully calibrated form by the UN General Assembly at the celebratory, 60th anniversary World Summit in September 2005, R2P moved from preliminary idea to emergent norm, to accepted practice (Click here for the official UN short history on R2P). In early 2011, slightly less than 10 years after its initial presentation, R2P “went operational” in UN Security Council-authorized missions in Cote d’Ivoire and, most notably, Libya.

The UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI), which saw UN attack helicopters used in April 2011 to bring a halt to a civil conflict over a disputed presidential election that had caused over 1,000 deaths and a half million displaced Ivorians, was hailed as the international body “getting it right”, and the UNOCI caused little international controversy. The UNSC-authorized, NATO-led international intervention in Libya, however, morphed from a generally accepted operation in March 2011 to prevent mass atrocities through aerial enforcement of a no-fly zone and the protection of civilian population areas from attack, into a far more divisive action that its critics saw as NATO planes being used by the National Transitional Council rebel forces as their air force; and as NATO (“the West”) engaging in targeted assassination and regime change against the now unpopular dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.


The Canadian government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which earlier had turned its back on R2P as a Liberal government idea and reportedly banned its diplomats from using the term R2P except in direct reference to the report, now jumped eagerly – and with no noticeable sense of irony – onto the R2P bandwagon (click here to read Canadian International Human Rights Lawyer Jillian Siskind’s take on Canada, partisanship and R2P).  Knowing almost nothing about the NTC rebels who it now sought to support with Canadian Forces assets, the Harper government more likely was looking for a new military role that it could play alongside Washington, and perhaps also wanted to show sceptical Canadian critics the value of modern, advanced technology aircraft in order to help justify domestically its non-competitive, multi-billion dollar F-35 procurement program.

Several months of bombing later, Gaddafi is defeated, captured alive and then killed in questionable circumstances, and Ottawa holds a public celebration of military victory. The interim rebel government has taken some small, positive steps towards rebuilding Libya. But did the Libya mission kill the political credibility of R2P? (Click Here for Foreign Policy’s indepth look at Libya and what it means for Humanitarianism) Russia and China, permanent members on the UN Security Council, abstained on the vote that passed Resolution 1973 authorizing the use of force in Libya. After watching, and clearly expressing their concern with the NATO mission as it stepped far beyond the limited mandate provided by R1973, they are very unlikely to offer such a mandate again for a UN R2P mission if NATO will be the ‘operating coalition’. Perhaps they would, if a combined Russian-Chinese military force was to take the lead – but what would the West think about that?

R2P was a good idea, and the notion of a norm of responsibility for protecting vulnerable civilian populations threatened by harm or suffering harm (and by this, R2P refers to mass atrocity crimes including war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing) surely is a valuable step forward. In another post, I will talk about the dilemmas and the flaws of R2P and our need for pragmatic realism in understanding what it really means in practice. However, it may be that the example of its implementation in Libya already has undermined the likelihood that another such mission will be supported in the Security Council. The Western military powers effectively eliminated through proxy forces and NATO air cover, another Middle Eastern/North African leader who they had determined was dangerous; their victory, however, may be the last one for The Responsibility to Protect.

Alistair Edgar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, the Executive Director of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS), and Co-Director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies.