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What Libya Says About Intervention

Author: Matthew C. Waxman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Law and Foreign Policy
August 5, 2014


Last month, American diplomats and Marines were evacuated from Tripoli. The 2011 international coalition intervention in Libya was supposed to be a step forward for the Responsibility to Protect doctrine – the notion that if a state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, it becomes the international community's responsibility to do so. Tragically, the current collapse of governance and bloody infighting among factional militias there will instead result in a step backwards for this important principle.

Back in March 2011, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone and authorized member states to "take all necessary measures" to protect civilians under vicious attack from Moammar al-Gadhafi's government. The resolution passed with 10 votes in favor and five abstentions, including by permanent members Russia and China. In authorizing force, the U.N. Security Council cited the Libyan government's betrayal of its responsibility to protect its population. Many advocates of intervention saw this as especially significant because Russia and China, as well as many ex-colonial states of the global South, had generally resisted such infringements on the sanctity of state sovereignty.

During and immediately after the ensuing military intervention that ultimately helped dislodge the odious Gadhafi regime, commentators made two exaggerated claims – in opposite directions. To some proponents of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, this was a defining moment of advancement, although such a claim overstated the precedential value of Security Council consensus on a uniquely isolated government that even the Arab League had shunned.

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