As the Western world cries out to stop the bloodshed in Libya and the autocratic if not bizarre rule of Colonel Qaddafi and US warships move closer to the shores of Tripoli, calls for intervention are once more juxtaposed against the sovereign rights of states. Countries such as Russia and China will probably veto any UN Security Council Resolution for intervention in the name of non-interference in the internal affairs of Libya while Western countries will condemn the human rights violations and the humanitarian catastrophe affecting those within the country as well as those fleeing.
There is nothing new here. Since the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, state sovereignty has meant that each country is sovereign within its borders and as concerns its citizens. What is new, however, is international responsibility for grave breaches of human rights wherever they may take place. States that are unable or unwilling to protect individuals are no longer immune from outside interference. Genocide, for example, is not an internal affair, nor are threats to international peace and security.
Humanitarian intervention is not a new concept. States have used it to justify their actions throughout history, almost always by the powerful against the weak, the North against the South. However, in the 1980s, the duty to intervene was further developed in France and it relaunched the debate. Subsequently, various humanitarian catastrophes such as the gassing of Iraqi Kurds by Saddam Hussein, Somalia, Rwanda, the massacre at Srebrenica and the intervention of NATO in Kosovo fuelled arguments between advocates of universal human rights and defenders of state sovereignty.
In the late 1990s, Kofi Annan set members of the UN the task of finding a consensus around when and how humanitarian intervention might be acceptable in the current political environment. The concept of the responsibility to protect was formally established by a Commission in 2001. The Commission argued that state sovereignty includes responsibility. Hence, when a state is unable or unwilling to carry out its responsibility to its citizens, the international community may step in without the formal approval of the concerned state. However, the operational capacity problems of establishing who should make the judgment, who should act, and what kinds of actions should take place have not been resolved.
It is against this background that the world debates what to do about the Libyan crisis. For even those in opposition to Qaddafi within Libya are worried about calling for outside interference in fear of appearing to play into historic Western colonialism. As the battle rages for control of Libya and its enormous riches, actors within and outside Libya are more than aware that a precedent could be set and that without international legitimacy, unilateral action will be unacceptable, no matter what humanitarian reasoning will be used. The Chinese and Russians are fervent supporters of state sovereignty, fearing eventual interference in their internal affairs.
So, we will watch as the battles continue within Libya. There will be symbolic gestures concerning the Human Rights Council and no-fly zones. Warships will move into position. But, at least for the moment, there is little consensus on cooperative action. It is one thing to cry "Do something," it is far more complicated to justify who does what.
March 3, 2011