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In advance of a workshop on Operationalizing the Responsibility to Protect: Building Trust and Capacities for the Third Pillar Approach, to be held April 26 at the Global Governance Institute in Belgium, the organizers put out a call for papers in January. The papers will address two areas: enhancing the legitimacy and consistency of the third pillar* approach, and improving the effectiveness of R2P’s civilian and military tools.

Per the policy brief, “The workshop is not concerned with the conceptual nature of the pillar itself, but rather on the range of peaceful and military measures and tools—such as economic sanctions, preventive diplomacy and mediation, fact-finding missions and, as a last resort, military interventions such as the implementation of no-fly zones and civilian missions—used for implementation.” Policy recommendations discussed at/born of the workshop will be contributed to the United Nations General Assembly informal interactive dialogue on the third pillar of R2P this summer.

NATO’s UN-approved mission in Libya has raised a number of concerns in regards to the actual carrying out of R2P. As noted above, intervention wasn’t solely intended to be of a military nature. The Libyan case therefore brings up questions of timeliness, legitimacy, proportionality, and effectiveness of this particular brand of action. Moreover, a greater emphasis on prevention would mitigate the need for intervention. Instead of reliance on the international community and the United Nations, regional actors such as the European Union and the African Union, should play bigger roles in responding to all stages of crises that would ultimately necessitate the invocation of R2P. Other elements of the principle to be discussed at both the workshop and the UNGA dialogue include trust-building, consensus-building, collaboration, transparency, capacity-building, early-warning systems, training, and a long-term holistic approach to crisis situations.

* The third pillar of R2P focuses on the international community’s responsibility to take timely and decisive action to prevent and halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in those instances where a State is unable or unwilling to protect its own populations.


In their article, How Mass Atrocities End: An Evidence-Based Counter-NarrativeAlex de WaalJens Meierhenrich, and Bridget Conley-Zilkic examine the narrative frameworks that inform today’s agenda of “protection of civilians” in conflict:

 1. A teleological assumption that the occurrence of attacks against civilians will, unless halted or deterred from outside, inevitably escalate towards genocide.

2. An epistemological assumption that privileges coercive military operations conducted on humanitarian grounds by international forces.

3. An ethical imperative based on the above teleology and epistemology that forecloses the historical and political discussions of how mass atrocities actually end.

Using comparative evidence from a variety of cases, beginning with the Holocaust and continuing through Libya, they then provide “a counter narrative to the dominant civilian protection agenda by returning to the historical record of how mass atrocities end.”

As to the first point, Jens Meierhenrich (pictured above) has put forth a general framework for studying genocide termination that contests this teleology. He argues for separating genocidal acts, campaigns, and regimes to better distinguish between different endings and, significantly, how each informs different policy options. In addressing the aforementioned epistemological assumption, the authors divide the ending of mass atrocities into five categories: 1) violence halted by the perpetrators once goals are met; 2) elite dissension or exhaustion within the perpetrator regime; 3) victims of violence flee or otherwise resist; 4) interventions waged by interested outside parties; or 5) humanitarian intervention.

Finally, questioning the ethical imperative, the authors relate a question that they deem to have been inadequately engaged by policy experts and researchers alike: How does one recognize when genocide or mass atrocities end? As they explain, “This question, let alone the equally, if not more complicated, question of how such violence ends has been caught up in the normative assumption about how they ought to end.”

While an optimal ending of mass atrocities is outlined as one in which vulnerable civilians are rescued, perpetrators are punished, and the state is justly reconstructed to address the conditions that enabled violence to occur, actual endings can rarely be described as optimal. But it is important to pay attention to what forces have played a tangible role in ending violence in order to garner a better understanding of how to interact with complex situations, what tools might achieve which exact goals, and a realistic expectation in terms of ending mass atrocities when this objective is obscured by competing agendas.

The authors describe some endings as being “the successful completion of a genocidal campaign, called off when the perpetrator regime is consolidated or when the political landscape alters such that the political rationale for mass violence against civilians is reduced. Other endings occur when the genocidal regime is removed from power, through successful resistance or invasion, or is fought to a standstill . . . Some endings are simply respite—a gap between genocidal campaigns conducted by a regime with an intact apparatus of mass violence.”

The article concludes by contending that the current undertaking of preventing genocide seeks to go beyond this singular aim to decisively resolve conflict and achieve transitional justice. Instead of the sole and default response of establishing a new regime “with ethical credentials commensurate with the horror that preceded it,” the authors’ approach “[. . .] eschews arguing from ‘ought’ to ‘is,’ and instead addresses the complexities of real politics and develops a rich comparative evidence base.” It seeks practical responses in the details of particular circumstances as opposed to deriving analysis and policy from universals that stem from moral impulses. Ultimately, such an approach should result in more effective prevention policymaking and reactions.


In September the Carnegie Council published the Fall 2011 issue of its journal Ethics and International Affairs, featuring a roundtable discussion on the intervention in Libya and its implications for future humanitarian interventions. This post will examine one of the six contributions to the discussion, “The Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention in Libya,” by James Pattison. (It is important to bear in mind that the articles were written nearly two months ago, while Gaddafi was still in power.)

Pattison’s thesis is that the intervention in Libya was morally permissible, but it raises three issues about the ethics of humanitarian intervention in general; the ethics of mission creep, the problems with consequentialism as a means to justify intervention, and selectivity. Specifically, Pattison claims that the moral permissibility of Libya depends on two questions: Was there just cause for the intervention? What were the intentions of the interveners?

On the question of just cause, Pattison suggests relying on the parameters set by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty; the presence of large scale loss of life (genocidal intention not required), and/or ethnic cleansing. Pattison believes that Libya fulfilled these requirements for five main reasons. First, he claims that the intervening forces in Libya did not exceed the scope of the intervention—a no-fly zone with no troops on the ground. However, the presence of French, American, and British Special Forces in Libya, even if they were present only as advisors and trainers, could call this claim into question. Second, Resolution 1973 gave NATO permission to intervene, which made it an internationally sanctioned intervention. Third, the imminent military attack on Benghazi, combined with Gaddafi’s famous “no mercy” speech, and his call to cleanse Benghazi, justified forgoing preventative measures for the sake of saving innocent civilians under immediate threat of annihilation. Fourth, the intervention was supported by regional states and organizations, most importantly the Arab League. However, this support was second-guessed only a day after the intervention began. Lastly, Pattison claims that the mission had a reasonable hope for success in its short-term goal of protecting the citizens of Benghazi, but he also points out that the long-term hope of success was uncertain at best. Pattison makes a point of saying these facts support the moral permissibility of humanitarian intervention, but not the pursuit of regime change.

Regime change inherently holds higher risks than humanitarian intervention. A policy of forced regime change is more costly in economic and military terms, more collateral damage can be expected, and generally threatens the stability of the country and the entire region more than a humanitarian intervention. Therefore, Pattison states that the requirements to justify regime change should be proportionally higher given its consequences. Therefore, Pattison claims that a forced regime change in Libya was not justified. Although the intervention included forced regime change as only a secondary goal at first, Pattison claims that due to mission creep it became the main goal of the Libya intervention. This view is supported by British General Sir David Richards calling for an expansion of NATO targets to oust Gaddafi. This expansion of the NATO bombing campaign made many who supported the intervention backtrack. Mission creep is the first of three major issues Pattison believes the Libya intervention reveals about humanitarian intervention in general.

The second issue is the justification of interventions through a consequentialist point of view. In Libya the short-term consequences, namely the protection of the civilians in Benghazi, certainly justified intervention. However, the long-term consequences were less clear, and failed to reveal themselves even when the conflict drew to an end. Pattison states that the inconclusive nature of the long-term consequences puts justification of the intervention into doubt. if one focused only on the long-term consequences in Libya, intervention would not have been justifiable, since the long-term consequences were so unclear, and were constantly debated throughout the intervention. Instead, Pattison suggests that a different approach should be adopted, one that focuses on more assessable considerations, such as whether or not the intervention has the requisite legal authority.

The third and final issue the Libya intervention raises is that of selectivity. Many have disagreed with the Libya intervention in light of the fact that interventions were not undertaken in similar situations in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Many claim that this reveals the inconsistency of international moral standards and the presence and influence of self-interest in the UN’s decision to intervene in Libya. Pattison disagrees with this outlook, claiming that there should be selectivity, as many situations are dissimilar enough that an intervention could conceivably be permissible for one and not the other. He also says this critique misses its target; instead of proving that the Libya intervention was not justified, these facts actually reveal the moral failure of the international community in not intervening in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. In an August 26 article, Foreign Affairs agrees with Pattison, saying that the Libya intervention reveals the inevitability of selectivity in humanitarian intervention.

For Pattison, the real problem of selectivity is that given the assumption that the goal is to save the most lives with the lowest cost to the interveners, there were many other places that deserved intervention, where more lives could have been saved.  Notwithstanding, Pattison claims that an intervention in Libya and nowhere else is certainly morally permissible compared to no intervention at all.


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,

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