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Beyond Libya: A world ready to respond to mass violence

Rachel Gerber
Savannah Morning News
September 2011

Five months after the first NATO airstrikes opened Operation Unified Protector, the Gaddafi regime has collapsed.

The battle began with the Colonel’s declared intent to “cleanse” Libya of its protesting “vermin.” And with every rebel advance or retreat, observers remain poised to call the Libyan campaign either a victory or defeat for international efforts to protect civilians from governments that turn against them.

The decision to authorize force to counter Gaddafi’s explicit threats was steeped in the rationale of a political principle known as the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P. Its final outcome will undoubtedly impact the way global leaders view their self-professed responsibility to protect civilian populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

But Libya is far from the only data point tracking the progress of global policies to prevent and respond to mass violence.

R2P has motivated direct international engagement in crises as diverse as Kenya, Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, Ivory Coast and South Sudan. Key global and regional leaders have recently ratcheted up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, calling for him to step down.

Maligned as “interventionist” by some, heralded as a positive step forward in atrocity prevention by others, R2P is proving to be transformative.

The United Nations, a product of the experience of two world wars, was created to prevent violent conflict between nations, not within them. For much of its existence and within very recent memory, insistence that the UN could not intervene in any matter that was “essentially within the jurisdiction of any state” kept state-generated violence against civilians off the agenda of the UN Security Council.

Such arguments, however, have been merely marginal to debates over threats to civilians in Libya and Syria. UN member states have questioned whether and what kind of action the Security Council should take to counter such threats, but never the basic right of the council to do so. “It’s not your business” is no longer a viable argument when it comes to internal violence targeted at civilians—a recent and striking shift in the history of global politics for which R2P deserves its share of credit.

Far from a checklist that mandates uniform action, R2P is a dynamic policy framework that is meant to twist, bend, and adapt as best it can to the complex realities of the world it hopes to improve.

Beyond Libya, it informs many and diverse approaches to crisis, each of which give it a chance to prove its meddle in the long run. Over the last few years, mediation and quiet diplomacy curbed escalating crises in Kenya and Guinea.

Stabilization support continues in South Sudan and Kyrgyzstan. Such policies may be isolated—and as yet imperfect—but broader initiatives are also under way to improve global prevention and response capacities. A global network of government officials focused on implementation of R2P continues to grow. On August 4, the Obama administration issued a presidential directive to establish an Atrocities Prevention Board of top leaders within the US government to ensure better and more consistent responses to global threats of mass violence.

All of these efforts reflect a sense of obligation to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes—a sense that continues to root itself deeper within the psyche of global leaders.

Moving forward, novel approaches and compelling moral sentiments must eventually meet the messy realities of the world. Prior to recent rebel gains, many were beginning to label the Libya campaign a mistake. Struggle was equated with error. Though, as decades of peacekeeping experience have taught us, civilian protection is rarely a simple endeavor.

We learn by doing and, until very recently, inaction has been the global response to mass violence. As R2P is applied, mistakes will be made, as must adjustments.

Global leaders must take care that this inevitable process of trial and error does not automatically become trial by fire for the broader commitments made in adopting the Responsibility to Protect.

As global events unfold, R2P is facing the tests and trials that both its supporters and skeptics always knew it would. But the real world is where we all must come of age. In the end, we are stronger for it.
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