The Responsibility to Protect may indeed protect some civilians, but unfortunately it also facilitates atrocities against others. Writing last week about the end of NATO’s mission in Libya, Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock proclaimed it as ‘A victory for the Responsibility to Protect’. But according to a report issued this weekend by Human Rights Watch, NATO’s campaign produced at least one major act of ethnic cleansing. The ‘Responsibility to Protect’ makes sense only if it applies to all people equally. It is becoming clear that this is not the case, and while we trumpet examples of those we believe we have saved, we quietly ignore the examples of all those whose suffering we have caused.
As Libyan rebels from Misrata advanced south in August, disturbing reports began to emerge of mass killings in and near Tawergha, a town of approximately 30,000 predominantly black inhabitants, whose population had been markedly loyal to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. When British journalist Andrew Gilligan visited the city in September, he found it almost entirely deserted. A rebel commander gleefully told him that “Tawergha no longer exists,”, and he found graffiti proclaiming the Misrata brigade as “the brigade for purging slaves and black skin”.
This weekend’s report by Human Rights Watch confirmed many of the worst stories concerning Tawergha. When the Misrata brigade captured the city in August, most of the people fled. Those who didn’t were driven out by force. According to Human Rights Watch, arrested Tawerghans “have been subjected to torture and severe beatings, sometimes leading to death.” Rebel troops have made no attempt to hide their desire to prevent the population from ever returning, and in order to ensure this, they have been burning homes in the city, as witnessed by Human Rights Watch representatives early in October. More recently, according to the report, “[o]n October 25, Human Rights Watch spoke with a Misrata brigade that claimed to be ‘guarding’ Tawergha. The deputy commander said his forces were “protecting the place from arson and looting.” At the same time, trucks full of furniture and carpets, apparently looted from homes, drove past with men on the trucks honking and waving. Brigade members failed to intervene, arguing passionately that Tawerghans should never return.”
NATO’s mandate in Libya was ostensibly to ‘protect civilians’, but the Tawergha example confirms a past pattern of behaviour in our supposedly humanitarian wars in which only some civilians really count. For instance, in the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, Serbian civilians, having been definitively cast as the bad guys, got no sympathy when they were driven out of Croatia and Kosovo in their hundreds of thousands by enemies armed and trained by the West. It would seem that in practice the ‘responsibility to protect’ does not extend to civilians who support the wrong side, be it in Tawergha, Sirte, Croatia, or anywhere else.
In short, modern humanitarianism is highly selective and more than willing to turn a blind eye to atrocities committed in its name, especially when those atrocities are in large part a direct product of it. It will be worth bearing this in mind the next time that somebody asks us to drop bombs on other people in the name of ‘protecting civilians’.