In the absence of any evident national interest justification for bombing Libya, the Obama administration is said to have been motivated by the so-called responsibility to protect — or “R2P” per the wonkish English acronym. In American discussions, “R2P” has quickly come to be associated with Obama advisor Samantha Power. But “R2P” did not emerge full-grown from the brain of Samantha Power. Rather, it grew out of the pseudo-legal doctrine of “the right of humanitarian intervention,” which was developed by mostly European academics in the 1990s in order to justify the NATO interventions in the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts.
It was undoubtedly in recognition of his role in promoting “humanitarian intervention” – or “l’ingérence humanitaire” in the French original — that the “French doctor” Bernard Kouchner would be named the first head of the UN protectorate in Kosovo, following the conclusion of the 78-day NATO bombing campaign that drove Yugoslav forces from the then province. The point of the “right of humanitarian intervention” was to qualify several fundamental guarantees and prohibitions enshrined in the UN Charter: namely, the respect of state sovereignty and territorial integrity and the fundamental prohibition on the use of force in international relations.
In a nutshell, the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” held that the aforesaid founding principles of the UN are all very well and good, but when civilian lives are at stake in a domestic conflict foreign states or coalitions of states may intervene anyway. The “responsibility to protect” appears on first glance to go even further, converting the right of states to intervene into their “responsibility” to do so. On closer inspection of the relevant UN texts devoted to “R2P,” the authorization of international military action is far more hedged and the primary “responsibility to protect” in fact devolves on states vis-à-vis their own citizens.
But, be that as it may, nothing could more clearly illustrate the complete arbitrariness to which the application of “R2P” is subject in practice than the current intervention in Libya. The invocation of “R2P” in the Libyan case is based on media reports of attacks on civilians by Libyan government forces at the outset of the unrest in February. Never mind that there were also reports of attacks on civilians by Iranian government forces following the Iranian elections in June 2009. Never mind that there are reports of massive use of violence against civilians in Syria at present. Never mind that the United States itself is constantly accused of killing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does no one remember the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video?
Never mind, finally, that the United States and its NATO allies do in fact kill civilians. Even when the victims of their attacks are predominantly civilians, it is generally assumed that the targets were legitimate military targets, nonetheless, or that the attacks were the result of regrettable mistakes committed in the inevitable “fog of war.” Both of the two explanations have been used, for instance, to justify the September 2009 German-ordered American air strike near Kunduz, Afghanistan, that left scores of civilians dead.
In November 2004, incidentally, French forces in the Ivoirian city of Abidjan opened fire on a crowd of anti-French protestors killing at least seven people and wounding dozens. By virtually all accounts other than that of the French government, the protestors were unarmed. Around the same time, French helicopter gunships opened fire on civilian protestors elsewhere in Abidjan killing many more. (For a detailed reconstruction, see my “The Black Tuesday of the French Army.”)