Syrian leaders have avoided the inflammatory rhetoric that inspired international condemnation of Libya, NATO’s involvement, and the eventual collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government. But the UN’s Edward Luck, a special adviser for carrying out the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, believes that pressure is nevertheless mounting on Syria. "Many countries in the region are hardening their attitude and putting more pressure on the Syrian government to act," says Luck. "And we hope that will convince them to change course."
How important was the UN Security Council action allowing use of force to protect civilians in Libya, which tipped the military scales against Qaddafi?
I think it was quite an important precedent, both in Resolution 1970, which talked about sanctions and referred Qaddafi and some of his people to the International Criminal Court, and then in Resolution 1973, which talked about all necessary measures to protect populations--both of those invoked the responsibility to protect. That resolution led to the NATO air umbrella over Libya and the direct military action on the government forces.
It was important that the members of the council didn’t find that to be controversial. In other words, the principle was agreed upon. There were some differences on how to go about it, but it was clear that a government that seems to be virtually at war with its people, that attacks peaceful protesters with aircraft, with advanced weaponry, with military force, with mercenaries; clearly this is not part of normal governance. That, simply, is not acceptable. The Russians and Chinese had some reservations. But the fact that they did not veto shows that they have some political pressure that comes up from the sense that publics around the world expect the Security Council to act in these kinds of situations.
Did it help that Qaddafi himself made incendiary comments about "killing these rats" or "cockroaches" when talking about the opposition that had seized power in Benghazi?
Commitments were made by the heads of state (PDF) at the World Summit in 2005, who said that they would not only try to prevent crimes against humanity but would also seek to prevent their incitement. That summit included important wording on "Responsibility to Protect" which has since become known as "R2P." So, when Qaddafi decided to characterize the protestors as "cockroaches"--the same term that had been used vis-à-vis the Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide --that was a very worrisome sign. It worried us in the Secretariat; it worried the member states. There was some worry that Qaddafi might be out of control; that he might go very far. His early attacks on the protestors showed that he didn’t seem to understand the limits of international law and human rights. In many ways, his own behavior encouraged the international community to take strong action.
Press reports from Tripoli say that even though the Qaddafi government has seemingly fallen, the new transitional government is not really in charge (NYT), and there are various tribal groupings that are claiming parts of the country. Are you concerned that this may turn out to be an even larger civil war?
From a responsibility to protect perspective, we would think that any governing authority in Tripoli would have to protect the population. To protect the population requires some degree of control and authority throughout the country. Obviously, in a chaotic situation, it’s very hard to protect populations. So, we would remind the newest authorities, just as we reminded the Qaddafi government, of these responsibilities. I should say that it isn’t the goal of the responsibility to protect to change regimes. The goal is to protect populations. It may be in some cases that the only way to protect populations is to change the regime, but that certainly is not the goal of the R2P per se.
In Syria, the government has not used that kind of incendiary language. The government of President Bashar al-Assad claims they’re fighting terrorists or foreign enemies. Does that make it harder for the UN to do what it was able to do in Libya?
Certainly, the fact that the government in Damascus has been more careful with its rhetoric means that the case there was not as obvious. But we at the United Nations were very concerned since the beginning, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been very consistent on this--that the kind of violence used against peaceful protectors was simply unacceptable. Over time, it seems that there is reason to believe that crimes against humanity may well have been committed there. When the Syrian government refused to allow the UN investigators on its territory, which had been mandated by the Human Rights Council; when it tried to cut off all media [and] Internet connections, these were clear, worrying signs because one begins to ask what they are trying to hide.
If they feel what they’re doing is perfectly justified, they should allow the international community to get a better sense on the ground of what is happening. The United Nations has wanted for a long time to send in humanitarian teams to help the population who were suffering because of the violence. Again, the government was very reluctant, and only recently allowed in a small team (NYT), whose movement and independence were, in some way, compromised by government control. It was a start, but it was not the kind of transparent situation to properly see whether people are being protected from human rights abuses and atrocities.
Going back to Libya for a moment, why do you think that the Russians and Chinese did not use a veto, which they have threatened to do in the case of Syria?
I think there are two important factors. One, as I mentioned, is that the responsibility to protect really does have a large public following around the world. These are standards that people expect governments to follow, and they expect the international community, in particular the United Nations, to respond in these kinds of situations. But the other important difference was a question of regional pressure. There was a lot of regional pressure to act in the case of Libya, and I know that even countries that are rather cautious about the responsibility to protect felt that in that particular case they couldn’t go against the Arab League [or] against the African Union and try to block this kind of action.
And the Arab League has not done the same in Syria?
Recently, the Arab League made some statements (Telegraph) about Syria, condemning the violence against peaceful protestors, but it took awhile before they came to that position. The Human Rights Council has recently come out with a resolution on Syria; the Security Council in early August added a sharply worded presidential statement and is now debating various possible resolutions. So, the international community is moving on Syria, but it’s moving somewhat more slowly than it did on Libya. But in both cases, the secretary-general from the very beginning has been very consistent and very vocal, because he is really recognizing the need for the Secretariat side to be consistent and to avoid any selectivity in terms of how this principle of R2P" is applied.
In Libya, the turning point came when the Security Council called for use of force to protect civilians, which led to NATO’s aerial intervention, which was a major factor in bringing down Qaddafi.
The first resolution from the Security Council called for sanctions and for referral to the International Criminal Court. People hoped those measures would work, but Qaddafi kept moving. It looked like there was about to be a bloodbath in Benghazi. I can imagine what people would be saying about the responsibility to protect, if there was no reaction to that and we ended up with a bloodbath.
How do you think the situation will resolve itself in Syria?
It’s hard to know. One obviously wants a peaceful outcome. One wants the government to come to its senses vis-à-vis its international obligation for human rights and atrocity prevention. It’s been very slow to do so. I think one hopes that there are internal political processes within Syria that will lead to a changing attitude, and we noticed that many countries in the region are hardening their attitude and putting more pressure on the Syrian government to act. Syria doesn’t have as many friends as it did in the beginning. And we hope that will convince them to change course.
I wouldn’t be recommending a military action, but our position is to pursue the principle, not to try to micromanage how the Security Council would decide to use the various tools at its disposable.