UN Use of Force and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/5365.htm)

Military interventions authorised by a UN Resolution have a legal status.  The troops involved are chosen by the UN Military Staff Committee, whose role is “to advise and assist the Security Council on all questions relating to the Security Council’s military requirements for the maintenance of international peace and security, the employment and command of forces placed at its disposal, the regulation of armaments, and possible disarmament.”

UN Resolution 1970 in February 2011, referring Libya to the ICC, was an important precedent because Libya was not a signatory to the Rome Statute.[1]  The subsequent UN Resolution 1973 authorised the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’, which involved the use of military force.  That intervention in Libya appeared to institute a de facto ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, allowing the UN Security Council to authorise armed interventions against governments which are killing their own people.[2]

Unfortunately, the intervention in Libya was mishandled.  It was allowed to evolve into an attempt at regime change, without any plan as to how that might be peacefully achieved.  The country descended into chaos, giving an opportunity for international terrorists to establish a following.[3]  Although intervening in another country’s affairs might seem desirable in some circumstances, it is very risky.  After the Libyan debacle, the UN Security Council is unlikely to approve any similar action in future.

The scope of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ could eventually be reinstated if it were given legal status (without requiring case-by-case UN Resolutions), under tightly-defined conditions, to protect human rights in countries whose leadership has ceased to work for the benefit of their citizens or to protect their minority groups.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014


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[1] Clive Baldwin reported on the importance of Libya’s referral to the ICC as a precedent, in article that was published in The Guardian and also appeared on the Human Rights Watch website; it was available in April 2018 at http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/03/01/libya-what-security-council-has-done-justice.

[2] A Chatham House publication, entitled The new politics of protection?, which explained the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, was available in April 2018 at http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/ia/archive/view/176837.  The article explained the importance of the intervention in Libya as a precedent:

“Resolution 1973 (17 March 2011) on the situation in Libya marked the first time the Council had authorized the use of force for human protection purposes against the wishes of a functioning state.”

[3] On 14 September 2016, the BBC published a report entitled MPs attacked Cameron over Libya ‘collapse’ after Parliament’s foreign affairs committee had severely criticised the government.  The report was available in April 2018 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37356873.

Although America played a less active role in the intervention, President Obama was also criticised for the Libyan debacle in the March/April 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs; the article was still available in April 2018 at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/143044/alan-j-kuperman/obamas-libya-debacle.