from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Guest Post: Libya’s Lessons for Global Governance

August 3, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

A Libyan man attends the Friday prayer near a courthouse in Benghazi. (Esam Al-Fetori/ Courtesy Reuters).

After a mixed-bag of news coming from Libya this week, numerous questions have emerged regarding international interventions both in Libya and elsewhere.  My colleague, Mark P. Lagon, adjunct senior fellow in human rights at the Council on Foreign Relations and international relations chair for Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program, offers his assessment.

Lawyers often say, “Hard cases make bad law.”   Yet the hard case of Libya raises important questions and lessons on meaningful global governance today. 

When does a government’s sovereignty dissolve?  The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle is based on the premise that a government’s sovereignty is really a privilege as much a right. A government forfeits its sovereignty if it leaves large numbers of its own people to be slaughtered, violated, or dislocated—or, worse, if it’s the active agent of those atrocities.   Muammar al-Qaddafi’s explicit threats against his own people are an archetypical case of this “acutely atrocious autocracy threshold” (an “AAAT,” one might say). 

When is a human rights problem so salient the UN Security Council (UNSC) must act?  The UNSC failed to approve the use of force against Serbia to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and moved glacially on Darfur in 2004.  UNSC Resolution 1973 of March 17 represents a will to act before mass slaughter occurs—a portentous precedent.

How much do we need leading powers to catalyze action?  Discussions of global governance focus on emerging powers being incorporated as responsible partners in decision-making processes.  That Russia and China abstained and let Resolution 1973 be adopted might seem like a glass half full.  That Brazil, India, and Germany as suitors for UNSC permanent seats also abstained reveals a glass half empty.

How crucial are regional organizations?  The Arab League endorsed a no-fly zone for Libya and UN action on March 12, but its secretary-general eight days later questioned whether military action by NATO was going too far.  Libya shows that global bodies like the UN don’t require but benefit greatly from legitimation by regional bodies; and they often require regional entities to implement their work.  

When is indictment better than retirement? A war crimes indictment of a leader crossing the AAAT is a double-edged sword.  It not only reflects global consensus, but can deepen global will—and show both of these to the despot.  Yet to reduce harm to civilians, a “retirement plan” may need to be an alternative to the ICC’s June 27 issuance of an arrest warrant to convince the autocrat to leave power. 

When is not just shielding but actively helping armed resistance permissible?   A further threshold of the world stepping into the sovereign affairs of a nation is actively helping resistance forces using armed rather than peaceful means.  Libya shows that sometimes a regime is so onerous to its own population that this major step is merited.  

When does the world formally recognize an alternative authority?  France recognized the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya’s actual government on March 10; the U.S. did on July 15, followed by the UK days later.   This natural implication of crossing the AAAT is as important as a war crimes indictment.  In this case, it means billions in frozen assets could go to the TNC.

How unified or liberal must a new government be to back or recognize?  The July 28 murder of the top anti-Qaddafi military leader, Abdel Fattah Younis, by rivals linked to the TNC highlights this dilemma.  To secure recognition and boost its armed efforts, a new government needs to meet credibility tests just as the spurned autocracy needs to fail others.

Answering these questions suggest two broader lessons.  The first relates to the relationship of global governance and domestic governance.  When leading powers and multilateral bodies face a humanitarian calamity in a country, should the goal be good governance (liberal rule) or just governance (order and stability)?   It would seem, the more responses move down the continuum of denouncing atrocities, to humanitarian intervention, to recognizing a new authority, to even helping armed resistance, the more that global governance should advance good governance.   While one can never safely predict democratic outcomes, progressively more intrusive responses ought to serve the goal of replacing atrocities not with perfection, but at least a rights-respecting pluralism.

The second big lesson regards the individual leaders needed for established or emerging powers to galvanize multilateral action.   Among longstanding powers, President Sarkozy of France stepped up. Conversely, President Obama has been ambivalent in holding the coats of others—although recognizing a TNC government in July shows decisive leadership, spurred by Secretary of State Clinton.   On Resolution 1737, Brazil’s and India’s leaders lacked direction.   Eventually, Angela Merkel brought Germany around to back NATO efforts.   When global governance is needed after crossing an AAAT, leaders of old and new major powers need to do something, and the right thing.

Regarding the perennial struggle between sovereignty and collective action, Libya shows that the human element is paramount.  Humanity necessitates that action be taken against acutely atrocious autocracy—and that global governance advance good governance in what follows.  And equally important is that bold, wise leaders still matter.


Mark P. Lagon