On June 16, the Brookings Institution hosted a panel discussion titled “Libya and the Responsibility to Protect.” Moderated by Mike Abramowitz of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the panel featured Manal Omar of the United States Institute of Peace, Sarah Sewall of the Harvard Kennedy School, and Ambassador Richard Williamson of the Brookings Institution.

As Abramowitz said in his opening statement, several issues regarding R2P have been raised by the public, commentators, policymakers, and politicians in the context of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO intervention in Libya. Those questions include whether the intervention has prevented a mass atrocity, whether NATO’s ongoing actions have gone beyond the original mandate of civilian protection into regime change, and why the R2P principle has been applied to Libya but not other countries facing the threat of mass atrocities. Another question is whether R2P has been useful in dealing with the Libyan situation, or if the Libyan crisis has discredited the principle of the Responsibility to Protect.

Omar of USIP focused on illustrating the situation on the ground based on conversations she had with Libyan civilians and rebels. She highlighted the importance of NATO air strikes to rebels and civilians, and Libyans’ opposition to the possibility of foreign ground troops in their country. She also discussed Libyans’ views that regime change and civilian protection are one and the same in their country, their continued belief in the eventual demise of the Qaddafi regime, and ongoing discussions within and outside the National Transitional Council about transitional justice, reconciliation, and the form of Libya’s future government. Omar added that the people of Benghazi fear mass atrocities experienced in other parts of Libya could reach them without the help of the international community, and that they especially dread the use of rape as a “tool of war.”

Ambassador Richardson noted the tension between realism and idealism inherent in a principle like R2P, especially when it comes to the use of military force, and stressed the need for international legitimacy, multilateral consensus, and careful consideration of the full menu of options. He described the Libyan case as a learning opportunity, emphasizing that R2P, like human rights before it, will take a long time to establish itself as a global norm, and that while mistakes in applying the principle will be made, each time R2P is invoked is a chance for the international community to figure out what it means and how to respond. In the case of Libya, Richardson believes that Britain and France were more anxious to get involved than the United States was because they had greater interests at stake. He also said there may be times when it’s better to negotiate with the perpetrators of mass crimes without an ICC indictment to slow down the killing and save more civilian lives. He concluded by underscoring the need for post-intervention reconstruction and stabilization plans.

Dr. Sewall, one of the authors of the Mass Atrocity Response Operation Planning Handbook, emphasized the Libyan case as a learning opportunity, both politically and militarily, echoing many of Ambassador Richardson’s points. She described R2P as a “work in progress,” and said that even if some doubt the sincerity of the concept’s motives and view it as neo-imperialism, it remains “useful in framing the debate” about cases like Libya. She said the U.S. military’s actions in Libya demonstrated a lack of thinking about MARO operations within the military, noting that outside observers viewed airstrikes—the U.S. military’s primary tool for operations when not allowed to use ground troops—as synonymous with major combat operations aimed at regime change. Dr. Sewall stressed that protection strategies used in humanitarian interventions are defensive in nature, while the primary mode of carrying out U.S. military operations is offensive, creating an obvious disconnect between the goals of the operation and the tools used to accomplish them. Noting that “military power is very imprecise, highly uncertain, and really volatile,” she said civilian casualties could cause a backlash against future interventions, which underscores not only the need to be cautious about military intervention, but also the importance of prevention at earlier stages of conflict.

Image: Daryl Cagle, MSNBC.com

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