Responsibility to protect (R2P) civilians is a feel good UN commitment. It allows for military action if all other measures fail such as the insertion of blue helmeted Pearsonian peacekeepers. Each potential R2P situation has its own political context and Libya is no exception. The events there had reached the stage where military action was needed at the outset, and when it was applied there were no clear guidelines to dictate what those who intervened should do. Libya is experiencing a civil war where the opponents are difficult to distinguish, where the fighters on each side mingle with civilians and when protecting civilians also means acting on one side of the civil war. What should the interveners do in such R2P situations?
Conflict is easy to understand when national armies face each other. For example, in North Africa in 1942 the German and Italians armies faced the allied armies. Each side knew who the enemy was and the rules of war were roughly respected by each side. This earlier conflict was more like a football match with the opposing sides identifiable by their uniforms and an agreement to play by the rules. The Libyan conflict today is a civil war conducted using guerilla tactics which means anything goes if you can get away with it.
The opposing forces are not easily identifiable from each other and from civilians unless they are shooting or bombing you. The chaotic situation is illustrated by journalists’ reports of the rebel forces firing by mistake on their own supporters, and rebels firing into the air so that they attracted fire from NATO fighters. The aim of R2P is to protect civilians. How this is undertaken in a civil war where the civilians on the rebel side are also fighters, and the civilians on Gaddafi’s side are mixed with his military, some of whom are mercenaries from foreign countries. The task is like asking a chef to separate out the individual ingredients in minestrone soup.
The issue facing the west is or was whether or not to intervene in the interest of protecting civilians. Of course each potential intervener has other interests, but here I consider only the main stated one. Consider first the decision not to intervene. It seems that Gaddafi’s forces would have entered Benghazi and slaughtered civilians. The west and NATO would have been criticized for failing to enforce R2P and to support the universal human rights that they proclaim. Not only would Gaddafi remain in power but the message to other equally unpleasant authoritarian rulers would be that they could get away with similar actions. Recent history is replete with examples of the failure to intervene or to intervene only when it was too late. The actions of Hitler, Stalin and Mao are instances that spring to mind as well as killings in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Sudan and the Congo. Many in the west stood back and ignored the atrocities known to be taking place in Europe during the 1930s. In the UK, those who knew what Hitler was doing to his civilian population and refused to act were and are collectively called appeasers. The cost of not acting earlier was high. It took a world war with thousands dead to end some of these killings.
While failure to act and its likely consequences is the counterfactual situation, what actually happened in Libya is that NATO countries, with some degree of UN blessing, agreed to intervene by using air power to destroy Gaddafi’s air force and defenses. While this made it more difficult for him to kill civilians, it could not stop him since he has more and better organised ground forces. Air power can blunt but not eliminate ground forces. If it then acts to support the rebel ground forces, it becomes the air force for the rebels in a civil war and a combatant and not a peace-keeper. One unknown in Libya is that we don’t know who the rebels represent and thus who the UN is supporting. Whatever action is taken in Libya provides a precedent for acting in similar uprisings against authoritarian rulers.
The costs of intervening are high and immediate; the costs of not intervening are likely to be higher, especially in the long run.