Libya and “liberal intervention”

But before I start, I must briefly mention Iraq and Afghanistan. Not the rights and wrongs of starting these interventions as that has been talked to death almost everywhere (for example here). Instead, I want to state something best summarised in Mastermind terms: “I’ve started so I’ll finish.” Whatever the reasons, we intervened in both countries and we have a strong duty to finish the job, however long it takes. “Nation building” is difficult and could take a generation, so we must be prepared for a lengthy commitment. Personally, I’m very wary of attempts to declare victory and pull out.

Back to Libya, and more broadly, the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. This seems to be a popular movement, driven by ordinary people who want prosperity, more freedom and a say in their government. As a liberal, it is hard to argue with those aspirations.

The big question is what should we do? Should we intervene and, if so, how and where? As liberals, we believe people should be free from all forms of oppression, including by the state, and that power should be exercised in a democratic way through transparent and accountable structures. And liberalism is internationalist in outlook, standing against narrow interests of class or nation in favour of the general interest.

So it is clear liberal principles are at stake.

But any action against another state impinges on the freedoms of someone; even sanctions impinge on freedom of trade and often most affect those being oppressed. Historically, sovereignty meant that what happens within the borders of a state is the responsibility of that state and only that state. It is only recently, after the genocide in Rwanda and the failure of the international community to intervene, that this narrow view of sovereignty has begun to change.

In July 2009, the UN adopted a set of principles based around the idea that sovereign states have responsibilities to their people. These principles are commonly known as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Importantly, these were adopted as “jus cogens” – i.e. as principles where no derogation is allowed – and they established a framework for the use of existing legal tools (including Chapter VII military action) to prevent violations. These principles are:

  1. States have the primary responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity (mass atrocities).
  2. The international community is committed to provide assistance to States in building capacity to protect their populations from mass atrocities and to assisting those, which are under stress before crises and conflicts break out.
  3. The international community is responsible for taking timely and decisive action to prevent and halt mass atrocities when a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations.

Interestingly, the complete list of generally agreed peremptory norms is NOT covered by R2P: maritime piracy, apartheid, slavery and torture are omitted. Some argue that R2P doesn’t go far enough and that it should cover a broader set of circumstances (e.g. after natural disasters); others argue that it impinges on national sovereignty. Needless to say, all these arguments revolve around whether there is justification for intereference in a nations’ affairs, and what constitutes sufficient reason.

Regardless of these arguments over scope, R2P does provide a basis for intervention to prevent some abuses of a victim population. Libya is the first and, so far, only military action authorised under R2P (see this Security Council press statement, to which, after Gaddaffi’s failure to react, Security Council Resolution UN 1973 was the response when he threatened the population of Benghazi).

As liberals, we should welcome this acknowledgement that sovereignty is more than the right to do as you please within your own borders and that sovereignty also carries responsibilities to the people. However, unless we succeed in Libya, I fear that actions under R2P are doomed. Russia and China have long been opponents of intervention in what they see as “national” problems, and failure in Libya will help bolster their opposition. But if we succeed, it will become more difficult for them to object as they have set a precedent by not exercising their vetoes on UN 1973.

We could have stood by, as happened in Kosovo, and inaction would have been an easy course. But if we had, it is clear many of Gaddaffi’s opponents would now be dead. R2P would also be dead or at best on life-support.

We have not chosen that easy path. Though fraught with difficulties, and with no foreseeable end-game or exit strategy, I believe we have done the right thing in Libya. Now we must see it through, though it may take longer and be more costly than initially envisioned.

The fall of Gaddaffi will not be the end. As William Hague has said many times “It is not for us to choose the government of Libya – that is for the Libyan people themselves.” So once Gaddaffi is gone, Europe must use its experience to help whatever new state emerges towards a stable, prosperous future.

The stakes could not be higher. The outcome here could decide whether our neighbours are stable democracies with open, prosperous economies or remain autocratic and consign the R2P principles to history.

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