Responsibility to protect, a military matter?
Was NATO's war in Libya really a humanitarian intervention? Can a military operation be humanitarian at all? In 2005 the UN agreed upon the principle that states have a responsibility to protect (R2P) civilians in case of severe human rights violations. Sovereignty of states is thus not unlimited. A principle that seems to look nice at first sight. In practice however this concept causes quite some problems.
First, R2P is too easily limited to a military intervention. Nevertheless it concerns in the very first place a responsibility to violence prevention. We do no use the word conflict prevention as we think conflict to be a normal element in society; it is the turning into violence of a conflict that we oppose, because such a development is merely about power and not about solving problems. When we supply at large scale weapons to authoritarian regimes – like the European arms trade with the Gulf States and the then dictatorships that were overthrown by the Arab revolts – it is of course absolutely absurd to intervene on humanitarian grounds after these were used.
Secondly R2P is a concept of power over weaker states. Strong states are exempt for the sole reason that they are strong. A US war of aggression as against Iraq will necessarily remain unpunished because of the power of the US.
Thirdly, R2P military interventions occur within a geo-strategic context. States are also mainly defenders of (their) economic actors and have their own interests. An intervention in Libya can not be dissociated from the Libyan oil and gas fields. To see whether the motives of an intervention are really humanitarian one should check the general behaviour of the intervening states. All countries that waged war against Qadhafi were former arms suppliers to the very same regime. The way the western intervening countries behave in the commercial field is not so humanitarian either. Economic exploitation, entering with force into the poor countries' markets, the dismembering of their agriculture … it all causes immense human misery without our western political leaders seem to bother about it.
Fourthly, it is still deeply debatable whether a military intervention is the best way to prevent human suffering. Military intervention often brings along huge human and material costs. Big interventions as the ones from the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the Us in Somalia, NATO in Kosovo, US and NATO in Afghanistan, the US in Iraq and NATO in Libya are total failures from a humanitarian perspective. In many cases war started because not all political means had been used, or because we refused to use them as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The UN resolution 1973 on Libya stated explicitly that the aim was to protect civilian population. In the end the figures of the then oppositional National Transition Council spoke of 30,000 to 50,000 deadly victims. The city of Sirte was heavily devastated and the NATO endorsed rebels were guilty of war crimes. Military intervention makes the armed parties in conflict stronger at the expense of the political non violent forces, as was witnessed in Kosovo and Libya. Later it was documented that these armed groups dare to take the law into their own hands and can not be disarmed easily anymore.
So, humanitarian military intervention is a pure oxymoron. As peace movement we think that a just economic order, the restriction of arms trade, strong cuts in military expenditure, democratic reform of the international political and economical system, and to exhaust all political and diplomatic possibilities – how difficult these may be – can prevent much more human suffering than a (humanitarian) war.
Ludo De Brabander