R2P after Libya: A Cause Only the Morally Naïve Can Support?

Contrarianism is always useful for making a splashy headline—and it was perhaps that impulse that led journalist and author David Rieff to publish a New York Times op-ed this week with the ominous title “R2P, R.I.P.”. “At first glance,” he writes “the intervention in Libya looks like a textbook case of how the new U.N. doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was supposed to work.” But despite the self-congratulation that he assumes to be rife among the members of the NATO coalition that helped oust Qaddafi, Rieff sees many reasons to think that the Libya intervention was neither a clear success nor a solid precedent for the acceptance of R2P as a globally-endorsed norm.

First, Rieff, notes, it’s unclear whether the new Libyan government will make its citizens better off than they were under Qaddafi (and hence whether civilians will have been effectively protected at all). Furthermore, the Libya mission will be regarded as an illegitimate invocation of R2P by many countries, since NATO went beyond the Security Council-approved mandate of civilian protection in effecting regime change through its air support of the rebels. And most fundamentally, he opines, the principled rhetoric is a sham: the mission was about the self-interest of Western nations who decided that it was time to unseat a tyrant they had long supported. It’s “geopolitical business as usual”, with the Global North once again intervening in the Global South.

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Tying together these accusations is Rieff’s belief that proponents of R2P ignore ugly realities in favour of dreamy moralizing: “R2P is a doctrine born of good intentions, but one of its great drawbacks is that it turns war into a form of police work writ large, guided by fables of moral innocence and righteousness.”

If this last diagnosis is accurate, one would expect to see such a mindset on display in those individuals who were the original proponents of R2P at its inception a decade ago, and who still continue to believe in its legitimacy as a global norm. It is striking, then, that such moral naiveté was not at all in evidence at the November 4 panel on the development and future of R2P, when a decidedly pro-R2P panel convened at the University of Ottawa. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy—both instrumental in the development of R2P—were joined by Conservative MP Christopher Alexander, formerly Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan and UN special representative in Kabul. Their discussion displayed unanimous support for the R2P ideal and for the legitimacy of the Libya mission as a realization of that ideal. Yet none of the discussants was remotely naïve about the moral risks and ambiguities at stake.

With respect to the Libya intervention, Annan noted that “the jury is still out” on whether the post-conflict aftermath will give post hoc legitimacy to the principle of civilian protection. “What happens in the next six to twelve months,” he said, will determine how the realization of the R2P principle is assessed.

As for the “geopolitical business as usual” charge lobbed by Rieff against the North-on-South pattern of intervention represented by Libya, that topic was a recurrent theme of the discussion. Annan noted that the BRIC nations’ abstention from the Security Council vote authorizing NATO intervention reflected their wariness of any mission that might extend civilian protection into regime change. Now that the precedent of R2P-sponsored regime change has been set—an outcome arguably divergent from what the UN resolution authorized—there will be all the more balking by many Security Council members on future R2P resolutions. Axworthy continued this line of thought by suggesting that changing the Security Council membership would be necessary to ensure the legitimacy of future R2P actions by the UN (which ought to have its own R2P capacities rather than relying on those of NATO). In response, Annan added that the legitimacy of R2P actions could also be bolstered by extending its scope to authorize action by regional organizations—so that, for instance, a regional African response would ensure civilian protection in crises within African countries.

On the topic of selectivity and self-interest in R2P interventions—which arose in response to mention of the international non-intervention to date in Syria—no starry-eyed moral innocence by the principle’s supporters was in evidence here either. The international community will always be accused of double standards, Annan acknowledged; it does not have the capacity to intervene everywhere, and will choose to act in situations that lend themselves to useful interventions. “We must act where we can,” he said, even though that policy leaves some ‘bad guys’ at large while others are caught. Alexander similarly acknowledged that the Libya intervention raises expectations for R2P that will be hard to meet, particularly in Africa. And in response to an audience question whether R2P intervention ever excludes national interest among supporting states, Annan replied that “you would have to change human nature” for national interest not to be a factor.

Pace Rieff’s charge, then, steadfast support for R2P need not rest on delusions of moral purity or innocence. Its advocates are entirely capable of seeing pervasive uncertainty, half-success and mixed motivations in the development of R2P to date, as well as in its future. To believe otherwise, as Rieff does, is rather where the error of over-simplification lies. Sophisticated supporters of humanitarian intervention can acknowledge the shortcomings of the principle’s instantiation without giving way to cynicism.

A note of moral simplicity did emerge toward the end of the panel when Annan said that R2P is fundamentally about putting individuals and “the sanctity of life” at the centre of the world’s protection agenda. Coming after the welter of pragmatic complexities the panel had touched on, that declaration stood out as a welcome reminder of what is clear and pressing about the R2P agenda.

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