Monday 11 February 2013

Foreign Armed Interventions and ‘Human Protection’: Libya in Focus

By Kajit Bagu [1]

[1] Kajit John Paul Bagu is a PhD Student at the University of Edinburgh undertaking his research on Peace Building under International and Constitutional Law with a Focus on Divided or Multi-Ethnic/Religious Societies (Central Nigeria as case study). His Masters Thesis at the University of Warwick was on the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P)_________________________________________________

Introducing R2P

Mass atrocities which include ‘genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’[1] have led the International Community to develop the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The Rwandan Genocide of 1995 in Africa stands-out as a key occurrence which inspired Kofi Annan to initiate and promote the process that led to R2P. The doctrine has three pillars: The protection responsibilities of the state; international assistance and capacity building and the third pillar, timely and decisive response.[2] The third pillar essentially amounts to armed intervention, even though it is phrased to avoid betraying this reality upon face value. Armed interventions when carried-out by forces external to an independent state bear the proper nomenclature of ‘foreign armed interventions’. In fact, most occurrences alluded to as ‘armed interventions’ are actually ‘foreign armed interventions’.

In the African context, foreign armed interventions have been recurrent since the trade in slaves gave way to colonialism which was achieved by the gun. When colonialism in turn gave way to independence in the mid 20th century, these interventions continued as a result of the drift towards internal conflicts that afflicted many Western/Berlin-constructed states in the continent. Some of these foreign armed interventions post-independence include Belgium in Congo, 1964; in Kisangani, 1965 and Katanga (Shaba Province) in 1979. Others include those of France in Central Africa, the United States in Somalia and most recently, NATO in Libya. The intervention in Libya stands-out as the only case of armed intervention which expressly invoked R2P, professing to ‘protect civilians’, and done against the wish of the Libyan government pursuant to a Security Council resolution.[3]

This paper explores foreign armed interventions in Africa and ‘human protection’. While highlighting the need for effective measures to ensure the protection of human lives in situations of conflict, this paper beams a light on the negative effects of foreign armed interventions. The paper ultimately suggests that foreign armed interventions may carry more negative results contrary to the goals they set-out to achieve within the African scenario.

Humanitarianism, Interventionism and the Responsibility to Protect
The evolution of R2P under international law can best be described as an effort to reconcile humanitarianism and interventionism. This was ostensibly with the aim of ridding interventionism of the ill fame of imperialist designs.[4] This need to frame armed interventions in humane robes was absolutely necessary for it to garner acceptability from the non-western countries, especially regions that have been subjected to western imperialism in the past. Already, the idea of ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ had been discredited for this reason and thus gained infamous reputation as a tool for western powers to undertake and execute their imperialist designs in other parts of the world.[5] Most scholars in the field have had to acknowledge this trend because “forcible intervention in the name of international justice usually gave rise to serious abuses and was reserved for the most powerful sates.”[6] It was a breed of humanitarianism that had been stained in too much blood, tainted with motives other than the humanitarian, and thus brought to question by its legacies.

To rescue the situation, the concept of R2P was a timely innovation. This innovative perspective to R2P aimed at elevating the humanitarian motive above any others inspired the framing of the documents made by the different United Nations initiatives that worked on it. As such, the 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) titled ‘The Responsibility to Protect’[7] was carefully worded to downplay interventionist rhetoric. A similar pattern was adopted by other documents including the 2004 report of the high level panel,[8] paragraphs 138-139 of the 2005 world summit outcome document,[9] as well as the United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) 2009 report on implementing R2P.[10] In their numerous works, scholars of R2P such as Gareth Evans[11] who was co-chairman of the ICISS, and Ramesh Thakur[12] who was a member, have also called for caution in the handling of R2P lest it be used for imperial designs and its objectives tarnished.

In spite of the strides achieved with R2P, the doctrine has not escaped the criticism. As such, scholars such as Burke who are critical of R2P have called it a misconceived idea capable of being turned into less altruistic ends,[13] while Bricmond calls it an ambiguous doctrine.[14] Downes describes the nomenclature shift as voiceless passivity since for him, “Substituting the word responsibility (in The Responsibility to Protect) for the right (in “right to intervene”), the ICISS performs its own act of conceptual violence”.[15] Weiss who was the Director of Research for the ICISS also describes the nomenclature question as “a superficially attractive but highly unrealistic way to try and pretend that we can finesse the hard issues of what essentially amounts to humanitarian intervention”.[16]

At the heart of this essay is the question of human protection and foreign armed interventions as it affects Africa. To answer this in the context of R2P, I draw from the analogy of scholars who measure success by the comparative number and scale of human protection. I agree with Seybolt who measures the success of an intervention, “if it saves more lives than could have been saved without intervention”.[17] As such, foreign armed interventions are counterproductive if they lead to the loss or more lives and the imposition of harsher life-conditions for a populace than would have otherwise been without a foreign armed intervention. Weiss describes this as a situation of a more harmful cure.[18] Where this is the case, then foreign armed intervention would be a catastrophic irony of humanitarianism since more harm would be occasioned as a result of the immediate and remote effects of such interventions. The difficulty however lies in determining whether a particular intervention is going to result in the protection of more lives than non-intervention.

Interventions would thus be unsuited if “consequences of intervention would be worse than consequences of not intervening.”[19] This is where the African setting comes in, and I am of the opinion that foreign armed interventions are more likely to be harmful than helpful because of different reasons ranging from historical, cultural and political. This is also because of reasons based on the slippery nature of international politics and the pursuit of “strategic interests” by the intervening powers- historically consistent along patterns of western countries intervening in the Global South and mostly in former colonies- thus reinforcing colonial patrimony.[20] This is where the application of R2P in Libya in 2011 tests many issues touched in this essay.

Libya, Gaddafi and NATO
R2P was expressly invoked and applied for the first time in Libya during the uprisings through UN Security Council Resolution 1973.[21] The stated objective in the resolution was “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi.”[22] Indeed, the proponents of the resolution were careful to profess that regime change was not the objective before the resolution was passed,[23] but not long thereafter it became apparent that the goal was regime change from the words of Nickolas Sarkozy,[24] David Cameron[25] as well as Barrack Obama[26] which were explicit that regime change was the aim.

By the time Benghazi was protected from the pending regime assault however, the rhetoric shifted to supporting the rebels through air raids of ‘command and control centres’, including government institutions. Eventually, the numerous attacks against the regime and support for the rebels by NATO led to the ouster of the Libyan regime as vowed.[27] In this process, all initiatives aimed at dialogue were vehemently rebuffed by the western powers, including those emanating from the African Union.[28] The implication was the extensive use of force with a consequent heightening of levels of violence between government forces and rebels, increasing devastation of government structures and infrastructural facilities, increasing civilian casualties as a result of the widespread violence and NATO bombardments.[29] The rise of armed groups and brigades with little or no sense of order or allegiance to any authority as well as the proliferation of unaccounted Libyan arms is another dimension.[30]

Would the human suffering and disaster inflicted due to the foreign armed intervention in Libya have been more if there had been no such intervention? This is precisely the difficulty alluded to by Seybolt, and it is simply impossible to know and difficult to guess or estimate. However, I can draw from the likely effects of non-intervention and compare with what is clear to all as the effects of the foreign armed intervention in Libya via a series of rhetorical questions: Would Gaddafi have proceeded to massacre the residents of Benghazi had the intervention not occurred as the world was made to believe? Would the rebels have adopted increasingly violent measures and stance of non-negotiation if they had no direct backing from America, Britain and France among others? Would Libyan arms have ‘disappeared’ if the foreign armed intervention by NATO had not taken place? Would the civilian casualties have been as much as they eventually became, and would the violence have been as widespread had the intervention not occurred? Would the services and infrastructure necessary for meaningful human living have been as extensively damaged in Libya had the NATO bombardments not taken place? I do not pretend to give definite answers to these questions, but any reader’s honest guesses would be as good as mine.

The professed goal of human protection was fundamentally compromised by a foreign armed intervention in Libya, and this, in the face of a number of viable alternative approaches to resolving the conflict between Libyans. The human suffering thereby engendered has devastated much of the country and the effects still linger. I doubt that a negotiated settlement supported in good faith and without ‘behind the scene antics’ by the western nations would have produced half as much devastation- however ‘unfair’ the outcome would have been, provided the Libyan people were the true focus of such humanitarian measures.

And the ‘rest of us’ in West Africa: Hostages of Foreign Armed Intervention

The ripple effects of the foreign armed intervention in Libya have made themselves felt by ‘the rest of us’ in Africa who thought we were far removed from the scene. The clearest and most direct impact is visible In Mali with the increasing assaults by the Tuaregs resulting in the military coup and the purported secession and declaration of ‘Azawad Islamic Republic’ by Al Qaeda and and Ansar Dine.[31] The response of Mahmadou Issoufou, the Niger president, to the effect that ‘It was not necessary to kill Gaddafi’[32] strongly illustrates how the intervention in Libya is biting his country and people. The increasing devastation wrecked in Nigeria using heavy arms[33] by the Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jihad Islamic sect, popularly called ‘Boko Haram’, has been directly linked to Libyan arms.[34] This would not surprise anyone with a basic historical knowledge of the fact that Kano and Maiduguri in Nigeria of today have had long trade links with Tripoli for hundreds of years. I do not suppose any reasonable person is naive enough to imagine that colonialism created tight borders between these cities and Libya!

In view of this wider African perspective, the foreign armed intervention in Libya by the western powers can safely be seen for what it was in humanitarian terms. For Libya as well as a wider region in Africa, the application of R2P has arguably stood humanitarianism on its head in a dramatic yet predictable way. The human devastation has made a large population of Africa hostage to the foreign armed intervention in Libya, ostensibly in the name of protecting human rights. I may even add that besides bolstering the spirit of armed rebellion and lowering the respect for human life, the Libyan armed intervention is probably responsible for the plight of the Syrian people today. It could well be that the west has lost the credibility to be entrusted with a mandate to responsibly use armed intervention to protect people without exceeding limits.[35] Humanitarianism is thus unfairly exposed on both ends.

Concluding remarks

In this paper, I have examined the question of foreign armed interventions and human rights protection in the African context. In examining the application of the doctrine of R2P in Libya, the paper has attempted to demonstrate how humanitarianism could cause much more harm than the initial harm it set-out to prevent when it adopts the use of arms with mixed motives. Resolution 1973 was aimed at saving lives, but the effects of the foreign armed intervention has left a trail of human disasters that are today felt beyond the borders of Libya. It may be interesting to note that the urgency with which the intervening powers pursued and implemented armed intervention is no longer visible in respect of the humanitarian effects proliferating across Africa.

The quest for protection of people from mass atrocities borders on the first and fundamental right without which no others may be invoked, the right to life. Humanitarianism as a venture that began with the bare humane hands of Henry Dunant at the battle of Solferino in 1859[36] has dramatically come to bear arms, and even fire cruise missiles in 2011. This leaves our generation with the task of reconsidering the terms of engagement across lines of conflict and the need to re-prioritise our values. The African philosophies which value communality and life probably need to be valorised into conflict resolution strategies. In this way, the protection of human lives can once more prevail over other motives, and humanitarianism could again be re-invested with humanity.


[1] ‘2005 World Summit Outcome: Draft resolution referred to the High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly by the General Assembly at its fifty-ninth session’, UN General Assembly A/60L.1, 15 September 2005, page 31

[2] ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’, Report of the UN Secretary-General, United Nations General Assembly A/63/677, 12 January 2009,

[3] Resolution 1973 (2011), Adopted by the Security Council at its 6498th meeting, on
17 March 2011,

[4] Burke, C.J., 2009. Replacing the Responsibility to Protect: The Equitable Theory of Humanitarian Intervention. Amsterdam Law Forum, 1(2), pp. 61-87

[5] Foley, C., 2010 The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism went to War. Verso, London

[6] Joyner, C., 2007. ‘The Responsibility to Protect’: Humanitarian Concern and the Lawfulness of Armed Intervention. Virginia Journal of International Law 47(3), pp. 693-723 at 700

[7] ‘The Responsibility to Protect’, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, December 2001,

[8] ‘A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility’, Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, December 2004,

[9] ‘2005 World Summit Outcome: Draft resolution referred to the High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly by the General Assembly at its fifty-ninth session’, UN General Assembly A/60L.1, 15 September 2005,

[10] ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect’, Report of the UN Secretary-General, United Nations General Assembly A/63/677, 12 January 2009,

[11] Evans, G., 2008. The Responsibility to Protect. Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC

[12] Thakur, R., 2011. The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the use of Force in International Politics. Routledge, Canada

[13] Burke, C.J., Op. Cit. p. 62

[14] Bricmond, J., 2009. Responsibility to Protect?. Monthly Review. 03 August 2009,

[15] Downes, P., 2004. Melville’s Benito Cereno and the Politics of Humanitarian Intervention. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2/3), pp. 465-488 at p. 483

[16] Weiss, T.G., 2007. Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action. Polity Press, Cambridge, p. 104

[17] Seybolt, T.B., 2008. Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Conditions for Success and Failure. Oxford University Press, New York. P. 45

[18] Weiss, T.G., Op. Cit. p. 120

[19] Brock, G., 2006. Humanitarian Intervention: Closing the Gap between Theory and Practice. Journal of Applied Philosophy. 23(3), pp. 277-291

[20] Ottaway, M., and Lacina, B., 2003. International Interventions and Imperialism: Lesson from the 1990s SAIS Review 23(2), pp. 71-92, p. 71

[21] Resolution 1973 (2011), Adopted by the Security Council at its 6498th meeting, on
17 March 2011,

[22] Ibid. 4

[23] Nisbet, R., ‘Obama: Libya Mission is not Regime Change’ Sky News, 29 March 2011,

[24] Irish, J. ‘France’s Sarkozy says Gaddafi must go’, Reuters, 25 February 2011,

[25] Alberici, E., ‘Obama, Cameron say Gaddafi must go’, ABC News, 25 May 2011,

[26] Al-Khairalla, M., ‘Obama says Libya in Stalemate but “Gaddafi will go”’, Reuters, 15 April 2011,

[27] Njaroge, P.N., ‘The Destruction of Libya and the Murder of Muammar Gaddafi: NATO’s Moral Defeat’, Global, 26 October 2011,

[28] Kucinich, D.J., ‘Libya and Beyond: How did we get there and what happens next?’ Press Release by Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich, 23 August 2011,

[29] ‘Nato Killed 72 Libyan Civilians, Human Rights Watch says’, CBC News, 14 May 2012,

[30] Nordland, R., and Chivers, C.J., ‘Heat-Seeking Missiles are missing from Libyan Stockpile’, The New York Times, 07 September 2011,

[31] ‘Northern Mali an Islamic State?’, Aljazeera, 31 May 2012,

[32] ‘It was not Necessary to Kill Gaddafi’, Aljazeera, 02 June 2012,

[33] Olugbode, M., ’51 Rocket Launchers uncovered in Gombe’, Thisday Live, 06 April 2012,

[34] ‘Unsecured Libyan Stockpiles Empower Boko Haram and Destabilise African Sahel’, Human Rights First, 02 June 2012,

[35] R.L.G., ‘Libya Bitten, Syria Shy’, The Economist, 31 January 2012,

[36] ‘The Battle of Solferino’, British Red Cross,

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