Responsibility to Protect in Libya: calls for intervention intensify

As UN experts denounce massive human rights violations in Libya, calls by civil society to halt mass atrocities have intensified. 

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated on 21 February that he was shocked and disturbed by accounts that Libyan authorities fired on demonstrators, and declared that the attacks, serious violations of international humanitarian law, must stop immediately. Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has warned that the widespread attacks against civilians "amount to crimes against humanity", and called for an international investigation in possible human rights violations. The Arab League has suspended Libyan participation. 

Libya’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN has also described “crimes against humanity and war crimes”- both included in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework - and called for the UN to create a no fly zone and for the International Criminal Court to investigate Gaddafi for violations of international humanitarian law.  

Former UK Foreign Secretary David Owen was the first British politician to back the call for a no-fly zone, and suggested that it be enforced by NATO (NATO Watch News Brief, 22 February). In a subsequent interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme he added that the west should be concerned about the possibility that Gaddafi would unleash chemical or biological weapons.  

The UN Security Council (in a press statement) and the Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide and R2P (in a press release), have reminded Libya of its responsibility to protect its population and called for an immediate end to the violence. One UN commentator suggests that this is the first time that R2P has been mentioned in a formal Security Council statement in reference to an ongoing crisis.  Civil society groups all around the world have also started calling on the UN, European Union, African Union and other world leaders to meet their R2P obligation to the Libyan people. NGO recommendations include imposing sanctions on key regime members and an arms embargo; establishing a no fly zone over the entire country and establishing a commission of enquiry; and if necessary referral to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. 

The French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has called for sanctions to be imposed and is leading the calls for a NATO-imposed no-fly zone to be enforced over Libya to "prevent the use of that country's warplanes against [its] population". However, British Prime Minister David Cameron has played down the prospect of military action against Libya, saying: "I do not think we are at that stage yet. We are at the stage of condemning the actions Colonel Gaddafi has taken against his own people".  

An Israeli news service today reported that NATO may attack Libya if the violence continues. Citing an interview in the London-based pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi with an unnamed European official, it was suggested that NATO and US warplanes stationed in Italy might be ordered to take down Libyan planes. However, US Defense secretary Robert Gates said (in an interview on 22 February) the United States had not discussed the unfolding crisis in Libya with its NATO partners, and he believed that the United States could not quickly enforce a no-fly zone. He suggested that others rather than the United States might be in a better position to establish a no fly zone: “The French – I don’t know what the British have in the area – but the French and the Italians potentially, I suppose, could have some assets they could put in there quicker”. These comments are somewhat disingenuous given that US fighter jets are based in Sicily and on Mediterranean aircraft carriers. 

In an interview for Bulgarian radio, Dr Solomon Passy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, also suggested that NATO undertake responsibility for security in Northern Africa. He also called for the EU to provide immediate guarantees for the evacuation and humanitarian situation in the region and the OSCE to offer support for securing free and fair elections in the post-revolutionary period. “For all these a UNSC Resolution will be very helpful, but at the end of the day it is not a firm prerequisite for clear actions on behalf of NATO/EU to guarantee peace, security and human rights”, he said. 

No-fly zones have been imposed previously: on Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991 and Bosnia in 1993-95. The latter, Operation Deny Flight, was a NATO mission to enforce a UN-sanctioned no fly zone, which was later expanded to include close air support for UN troops in Bosnia and to carry out coercive air strikes.  However, the no fly zone failed to prevent the Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities on the ground, while NATO’s 1999 air campaign over Kosovo and Serbia led to an acceleration in ethnic cleansing.  

Enforcing a ban on flights over Libya would prevent Libyan planes from again strafing civilians and may also enable safer evacuation of non-Libyans. It might also help prevent mercenaries, weapons and other supplies from reaching Gaddafi and his security forces. However, it would be unlikely to prevent atrocities on the ground and might lead to an escalation in the violence and other unforeseen consequences. Moreover, reports suggest that Russia and China would likely veto a no-fly zone at the UN Security Council, leaving the international community weakened. For the time being, therefore, a NATO-led no fly zone over Libya appears to be a non-starter.