In Libya, beware intervention to ‘protect civilians’

The Security Council appears to be stumbling its way toward a resolution on Libya endorsing a no-fly zone and authorizing member states to take military measures to protect civilians. The series of events unfolding now–with the Council finally gathering its will as the endgame approaches on the battlefield–bears an eery similarity to the Srebrenica denoument ...

The Security Council appears to be stumbling its way toward a resolution on Libya endorsing a no-fly zone and authorizing member states to take military measures to protect civilians. The series of events unfolding now--with the Council finally gathering its will as the endgame approaches on the battlefield--bears an eery similarity to the Srebrenica denoument in the summer of 1995. Then, too, the French were advocating air strikes at the last minute as the Council sluggishly tried to control fast-moving events on the ground. Ultimately, the Council failed. NATO warplanes dropped just one bomb on advancing Serb forces, who took control of the town and massacred many of its male inhabitants.

The Council's self-imposed focus on protecting civilians is part of the problem.  It signifies an unwillingness to intervene in a manner that would determine the outcome of the fighting and, by ending the conflict decisively, actually protect civilians. In the Security Council chamber, thousands of miles from events on the ground, it's easy to believe the fiction that antiseptic intervention limited to only preventing abuses of civilians is possible. It's not. Decisive intervention could still save lives and oust Gaddafi; intervention solely to protect civilians is a recipe for disaster.

More:  The focus on protection of civilians is, at root, a focus on methods of fighting rather than on the underlying causes or justifications. Imagine, for example, that Gaddafi's forces retake the rebel stronghold and kill most rebel soldiers in combat operations. Assume that government forces leave civilians alone. From a narrowly humanitarian perspective, this is an acceptable outcome. The rules of warfare were followed; civilians were protected. But from a political, strategic as well as moral perspective, it's still an awful outcome (though less awful than if civilians were harmed). 

The Security Council appears to be stumbling its way toward a resolution on Libya endorsing a no-fly zone and authorizing member states to take military measures to protect civilians. The series of events unfolding now–with the Council finally gathering its will as the endgame approaches on the battlefield–bears an eery similarity to the Srebrenica denoument in the summer of 1995. Then, too, the French were advocating air strikes at the last minute as the Council sluggishly tried to control fast-moving events on the ground. Ultimately, the Council failed. NATO warplanes dropped just one bomb on advancing Serb forces, who took control of the town and massacred many of its male inhabitants.

The Council’s self-imposed focus on protecting civilians is part of the problem.  It signifies an unwillingness to intervene in a manner that would determine the outcome of the fighting and, by ending the conflict decisively, actually protect civilians. In the Security Council chamber, thousands of miles from events on the ground, it’s easy to believe the fiction that antiseptic intervention limited to only preventing abuses of civilians is possible. It’s not. Decisive intervention could still save lives and oust Gaddafi; intervention solely to protect civilians is a recipe for disaster.

More:  The focus on protection of civilians is, at root, a focus on methods of fighting rather than on the underlying causes or justifications. Imagine, for example, that Gaddafi’s forces retake the rebel stronghold and kill most rebel soldiers in combat operations. Assume that government forces leave civilians alone. From a narrowly humanitarian perspective, this is an acceptable outcome. The rules of warfare were followed; civilians were protected. But from a political, strategic as well as moral perspective, it’s still an awful outcome (though less awful than if civilians were harmed). 

In Council negotiations, protection of civilians serves as a lowest-common denominator when broader questions or tougher language cannot be agreed upon. That’s understandable. But there is a real danger that military operations might be structured around the goal of civilian protection rather than defeating Gaddafi’s forces, and that would be very unfortunate.

It’s being reported that the Security Council is set to vote on a draft resolution this evening and that the Russians and Chinese won’t veto. The draft resolutions I’ve seen place authorization for force in the context of civilian protection. Assuming that focus remains in the version that passes, my hope is that any forces actually involved will very broadly interpret the authorization.

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
Tag: War

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