Rebels captured and executed Muammar el-Qaddafi in late October 2011. This tarnished the human rights advance of the year: the international decision to protect Libyans from their 69-year-old dictator's murderous ways. A less authoritarian form of government is hardly guaranteed in Libya, and blowback seems almost inevitable. But the positive outcomes that have so far resulted from this successful and robust military action in Libya suggest that it is not quixotic to utter "never again"--no more Holocausts, Cambodias and Rwandas--and occasionally mean it.
With the exception of Raphael Lemkin's efforts to define genocide and the resulting 1948 Genocide Convention, no idea has moved faster in the international arena than "the responsibility to protect" (R2P), the title of a report published in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Friends and foes recognize the commission's contribution to stopping mass atrocities, which it defined as a three-pronged responsibility--to prevent, to react and to rebuild.
Prevention and peace-building were not afterthoughts, but the commission's primary motivation was to break new ground in reacting to mass atrocities. Unlike other blue-ribbon groups, its focus was narrow. After divisive and inconsistent "military humanitarianism" in the tumultuous 1990s in places like Somalia and Iraq, states sought guidance about intervening to protect war victims.
R2P's central tenet is that state sovereignty is contingent rather than absolute; it entails duties, not simply rights. Sovereignty no longer offers license for mass murder. Every state has a responsibility to protect its own citizens from mass killings and other egregious violations of their rights. If any state, however, is manifestly unable or unwilling to exercise that responsibility, or is the perpetrator of mass atrocities, its sovereignty is abrogated. The "responsibility to protect" devolves to the international community of states, ideally acting through the U.N. Security Council.
This dual framework--internal and external--was embraced by over 150 heads of state and government at the U.N.'s 60th anniversary. The 2005 World Summit agreed to implement a norm that embodied what the world organization had been mandated to do since its creation, ensure "freedom from fear." Deploying military force is an option after alternatives have been considered and failed. In this respect R2P reflects just war doctrine.
The Military Option
Depending on one's perspective, 2011 was either an annus mirabilis or an annus horribilis for the R2P concept. Libya's people were protected from the murderous harm that Col. Qaddafi threatened in March 2011 when he promised to crush the "cockroaches" and "rats" who opposed him (the same terms used in 1994 by Rwanda's murderous government). But multilateral success in Libya was matched by a familiar impotence in Ivory Coast. The installation of Alassane Ouatarra and the surrender of former president Laurent Gbagbo followed a half-year of dawdling as Ivory Coast's unspeakable disaster unfolded. Three times in March 2011, the Security Council menaced the loser of the November 2010 elections and repeated its authorization to "use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians." But the U.N. soldiers on the ground did little until April's robust action by the French Operaton Unicorn. Until then, Mr. Gbagbo's intransigence and the United Nations' unwillingness to apply significant armed force facilitated a slow-moving humanitarian and political train wreck in Cote d'Ivoire. The delayed intervention made possible war crimes and crimes against humanity; it produced a million refugees and a ravaged economy.
Military intervention to protect the vulnerable remains a controversial option. In the summit's language, the use of force in R2P is restricted to "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." Using force in extremis resulted from observing international inaction in 1994 in Rwanda--doing too little too late--and action in 1999 in Kosovo--according to some, doing too much too soon.
The original I.C.I.S.S. formulation sandwiched military force between prevention and post-conflict rebuilding. These popular causes made military intervention for human protection purposes more palatable, especially to third world critics. Nonetheless, to most state actors sovereignty remained paramount, the deployment of military force objectionable and R2P thus a contested norm.
A New Standard for State Legitimacy
In addition to the usual attributes of a sovereign state commonly identified in courses in international relations and law--people, authority, territory and independence--R2P proposes one more: a modicum of respect for human rights. The interpretation of privileges for sovereigns has made room for modest responsibilities. When a state is unable or manifestly unwilling to protect the rights of its population--and especially when perpetrating abuse itself--it loses its sovereignty. The principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries evaporates, or should, in the face of mass atrocities.
Given R2P's goal of making mass atrocities a distant memory, how long can a norm be "emerging" before it "has emerged"? The responsibility to protect has shaped international diplomatic, military and academic conversations about responding to conscience-shocking disasters, but it has not always shaped actual international responses--for example, ill-conceived or ineffective efforts in Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Congo and Syria.
Two specific challenges remain. First, R2P cannot become a synonym for everything that the United Nations does. In addition to reacting urgently when civilians are at risk, R2P's value-added consists of requiring immediate preventive measures before crimes against humanity become widespread; also it offers proximate peace-building to help mend societies and avoid beginning anew a cycle of settling accounts with additional atrocities.
But the responsibility to protect is not about the protection of everyone from everything. As bureaucrats seek justifications for pet projects, there is the risk of an ever-expanding R2P agenda. It is emotionally tempting to claim a responsibility to protect people from H.I.V./AIDS and small arms or the Inuit from global warming. If R2P means everything, however, it means nothing.
Second, the responsibility to protect should not be viewed too narrowly. It is not only about the use of military force. That became clear after Washington and London's 2003 rhetoric disingenuously morphed into a vague "humanitarian" justification for the Iraq war; thereafter, any humanitarian justification for military force became suspicious.
In record time, R2P has moved from the passionate prose of an eminent commission to become a mainstay of international public policy. It has the potential to evolve further in customary international law and contribute to ongoing conversations about the qualities of states as legitimate, rather than rogue, sovereigns.
Military force is a blunt and bloody tool; its use is no cause for celebration. Deploying force for human protection, however, had largely been dismissed from the international agenda after NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo until the timely and successful military action against Libya. Mustering the cross-cultural political will to protect civilians is never going to be easy, but Libya may prove a pivotal experience. The central challenge to R2P now is not too little consensus, but a willingness to act.
The Security Council set precedents for R2P against Libya. Resolution 1970 had unanimous support for a substantial package of measures (arms embargo, asset freezes, travel bans and referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court). No country voted against resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone. In addition, the Human Rights Council referred to R2P for the first time in resolution S-15/1, which led the General Assembly to suspend Libya's rights of membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council. Security Council decisions about Cote d'Ivoire evoked the spirit of the responsibility to protect. Critically, some 11 council decisions have involved the R2P norm, and six of those took place in 2011 after Libya--for South Sudan, Yemen and Syria.
In short, decisions and actions have helped dispel myths and reaffirmed R2P's validity as a universal norm. Its legitimacy is now approaching a tipping point. Although consensus is widening and deepening across the North and South, grousing has not disappeared. Indeed, it began anew after Libya. "The threat to Benghasi was exaggerated" or "regime change was not authorized." Buyer's remorse in the third world resembles earlier versions that menaced the September 2005 commitment. The Nicaraguan and former Maryknoll priest who was president of the U.N. General Assemby in 2008-9, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, suggested "a more accurate name for R2P would be ... redecorated colonialism."
Spoilers were disappointed in 2005, however, and will be again, because of the discernible shift from antipathy to wider public acceptance of R2P and its institutionalization at various levels. The United Nations has established a joint office on the responsibility to protect, and a number of countries have established "R2P focal points." Perhaps most important is the establishment by President Obama of the Atrocity Prevention Board--an interagency mechanism to facilitate a rapid reaction across the U.S. government to prevent mass atrocities.
Closer to 'Never Again'?
As the situations in Tripoli and elsewhere across the Middle East unfold, acute dilemmas will remain for humanitarians and policymakers. If the transition goes well, the R2P norm will be strengthened. If it goes poorly, the norm's future implementation may be problematic.
A possible collateral benefit of the evolution of R2P is that the nonviolent and democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt may have greater traction. Qaddafi's autocratic "model" no longer seems inevitable. And, as American participation in Libya is one success of the Obama administration's foreign policy, the policy is likely to continue to receive the president's endorsement. Speaking in Brazil after imposing the nofly zone, Obama saw no contradiction with the views that brought him the Nobel Peace Prize--one can favor peace, but still authorize force to halt the "butchering" of civilians. The president's decision prevented massacres that would have "stained the conscience of the world." The scorned strategy of "leading from behind" led to new strategies of complementing U.S. military assets with those from NATO partners backed by regional diplomatic support from the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council and African Union.
Violence in Syria
Despite all that progress, the international actions (or inactions) aimed at protecting noncombatants in Syria indicate that a robust R2P response certainly is not automatic. The U.N. estimates that some 7,500 people have been killed in the last year as Syrian security forces deployed tanks, warships and heavy weapons against civilians--clearly crimes against humanity. The international response has been stymied by the intransigence of the Security Council members Russia and China, who have their own reasons to resist the U.N.'s robust international interest in a sovereign state's internal affairs. But the lack of action on the Syrian crisis so far does not mean that the R2P concept has been without effect.
A deafening silence followed the 1982 massacre by Hafez al-Assad of some 40,000 people in an artillery barrage of the rebellious city of Hama. This time, however, his son's brutal machinations have provoked hostile reactions from a host of actors: the U.N.'s Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and R2P called for a halt to crimes against humanity; the Human Rights Council condemned the crimes by a crushing vote and has published a report detailing extensive crimes; the United States, the European Union and other states have imposed sanctions; the Arab League has condemned the Assad regime, formulated a peace plan and sent human rights monitors. The U.N. General Assembly condemned the violence and supported the peace plan with a two-thirds majority and by an even greater margin later condemned Bashar al-Assad's crackdown and specifically called for his resignation.
Despite a strong condemnation from the president of the Security Council, a decision on further intervention in Syira has not yet proved possible, because China and Russia threaten to veto or actually veto even the most watered-down resolutions. But the R2P principle remains intact in Syria, even if international action is less fulsome there than it was in Libya.
"Never again" is not yet a reality in world affairs, but with U.S. leadership it has become a realistic aspiration.
THOMAS G. WEISS is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center and director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. A new edition of his book Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action has just been published.