Global Ethics Corner: Libya and the Responsibility to Protect

Jun 17, 2011

The intervention in Libya is the first major action authorized by the Security Council under the "responsibility to protect." Should we take military steps when leaders attack their own people? Or does this violate the state's right to self-determination?

The intervention in Libya is the first major action authorized by the Security Council under a new international principle adopted by the UN in 2005: the "responsibility to protect," or R2P.

R2P, according to The Economist, "holds that when a sovereign state fails to prevent atrocities, foreign governments may intervene to stop them. Human-rights advocates say it saves lives. Skeptics see it as too easily misused…"

The Economist highlights the dilemma: "Protecting all Libyans, not just those in the east, would require the end of Colonel Qaddafi's rule...."

"On one hand, the decision to go to war [in Libya] was made in good faith at a time when the risk of massacres seemed real." On the other, "as the war drags on and NATO strikes more widely...[t]he line between curbing atrocities and an air war for regime change blurred..."

"The Libyan vote passed only because Russia and China withheld their Security Council vetoes...Both countries are now getting cold feet, claiming misuse of the resolution's elastic language." Both countries are wary of the potential application to their own minorities.

The former Australian foreign minister who led the 2005 push to endorse R2P, Gareth Evans, "fears an interpretation that allows for 'all-out aggressive war'."

Nevertheless, who protects the defenseless when their own leaders attack them?

On which side of this choice do you fall? Do you tend to favor intervention, risking creeping escalation? Or, do you accept a state's right of self-determination, risking human-rights violations? As The Economist concludes, "A lot rides on this war—and not just for the Libyans."

By William Vocke

For more information see

"The Lessons of Libya," The Economist, May 21, 2011, p. 63

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Jonathan Sunderma
Mohamed Ali MHENNI
Nasser Nouri
Internews Network
Nasser Nouri
Ilona Gaynor
www.kremlin.ru
Paul Farley/ U.S. navy
Magharebia
Josue L. Escobosa/ U.S. Navy
Fibonacci Blue
Nasser Nouri

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