Libya 2011: Exploring the Implementation of the 'Responsibility to Protect'

By Andrew R. Aubuchon
2017, Vol. 9 No. 05 | pg. 1/1


This article explores the role that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) played in the 2011 intervention in Libya. It examines the R2P legal framework in coordination with events on the ground in Libya during the early part of 2011 in order to thoroughly explain that R2P was correctly invoked by the United Nations Security Council in order to uphold international law. The article argues that this mandate allowed for the lawful intervention by NATO thereafter. However, the R2P was not fully carried out. The law clearly mandates actions that must be taken upon the conclusion of fighting carried out in the name of R2P. However, neither NATO nor any other international organization (including the United Nations) followed these guidelines. It was that decision, to not fulfil the requirements of R2P, which caused the international mission in Libya to become a failure. Throughout the duration of the mission in which the legal framework of R2P was adhered to, success entailed. It was only upon abandoning the guidelines of the law that the intervention in Libya went astray.

On February 25, 2011, thousands of Libyans poured into the streets of Benghazi to protest the rule of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. At the time, Gaddafi had ruled Libya for over three decades during which he suppressed all political dissent. These initial protests soon spread into a full-scale rebellion across all of Libya. The international community, acting through the United Nations (UN), had previously created a law to grant legal authority to the international community to intervene in situations where civilians’ lives are at risk from their government. This law, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), was correctly enacted by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a result of the widespread violence that had already occurred in Libya and the legitimate fear of escalation. NATO followed the R2P mandate and carried out a successful military intervention in Libya that culminated in the October 2011 death of Gaddafi. The intervention in Libya remains a controversial topic and is commonly associated with the claim that the current state failure and widespread violence in Libya can be attributed to NATO’s military intervention; however, this claim is inaccurate and the blame misplaced. It was not the initial intervention, but rather the failure of the international community to remain committed to the successful development of Libya as is required by R2P after the revolution whereupon the mission became a failure.

Post-Cold War internal conflicts have resulted in a higher percentage of deaths being civilians than occurred during 20th Century wars.1 In this new era, individual citizens must sometimes be protected from their governments rather than only states be protected from neighbouring states. However, at the turn of the century, international law did not adequately address the issue of protecting citizens from violence committed against them by their own government or ensure civilians’ security in situations where their government was unable to do so. In fact, the UN Charter even states that “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members” and that “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”2 In order to address the inherent contradictions between the value of sovereignty and international intervention to prevent atrocities, the UN created the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001.3

The ICISS was tasked with explaining situations in which humanitarian concerns trump state sovereignty and grant international actors the right to intervene. After working for one year, the ICISS released a report entitled “The Responsibility to Protect” that articulated a new understanding of these issues.4 The report firmly states that while foreign military intervention into a sovereign state for humanitarian purposes should be an absolute last resort, there are situations in which it should be permitted. The ICISS report’s framework was passed unanimously at the United Nations 2005 World Summit and reaffirmed by the

Security Council the following year, thus becoming the international law now referred to as R2P.5 This law provides clear guidelines for when and how the international community can grant authority to intervene for humanitarian purposes. Each of these guidelines was clearly present with regards to Libya in 2011. In this situation, international law was enforced properly.

Responsibility to Protect’s principles for military intervention begin by providing a threshold of just cause necessary to warrant the degradation of state sovereignty. It states that for military intervention “to be warranted, there must be serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings, or imminently likely to occur.”6 Immediately after anti-Gaddafi protests began in Libya, violence occurred as state security forces attempted to crush the demonstrators. Multiple reports from reputable organizations such as Human Rights Watch claim to have witnessed security forces firing heavily into crowds of peaceful protesters in the capital city of Tripoli.7 While these brutal tactics strengthened the regime’s position in Tripoli, Gaddafi had lost control of most of eastern Libya by the end of February 2011.

However, he made it clear that he would not concede his ruling position in any way. On February 21, Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif spoke on a state run television network and said that “thousands” more would die and “rivers of blood”7 would flow if the uprising did not end immediately. The next day Muammar Gaddafi gave a speech in which he referred to the protesters as cockroaches before urging those Libyans who remained loyal to the regime to

“come out of your homes, attack (the protestors) in their dens.”8 These events drew the attention and concern of outside actors who quickly reacted in order to prevent a massacre from occurring. Clearly, the legal prerequisite for military action that harm is either occurring or imminently likely (in this case both) was met.

Next, R2P emphasizes right intention as a prerequisite for military intervention stating that “the primary purpose of the intervention, whatever other motives intervening states may have, must be to halt or avert human suffering. Right intention is better assured with multilateral operations, clearly supported by regional opinion and the victims concerned.”9 The President of the United States used this justification for intervention when he said, “I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action”10 while defending the NATO intervention. Immediately after violence broke out in Libya, the Gaddafi government was suspended from the Arab League. One month later, the League voted unanimously to request the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa claimed that “the main priority right now is to stop the deadly situation” and that the actions taken were to “protect Libyan citizens.”11 This call to action was then heeded by the UNSC, which adopted Resolution 1973. The Security Council Resolution established a no-fly zone over Libya effective immediately. Upon announcement of the no-fly zone on March 18, 2011, the citizens of Benghazi took to the streets in joy to celebrate that the international community was coming to their aid as Gaddafi’s forces were preparing to slaughter them. However, even with this support it can be argued that the level of regional support was not adequate to reach the necessary threshold for intervention.

Critics of the intervention will claim that the African Union’s (AU) opposition to

NATO’s actions makes the mission unlawful. However, the AU’s involvement in the conflict is complex and requires a full explanation in order to discredit the validity of this criticism. Upon the outbreak of fighting, the AU immediately condemned the violence in Libya, and many African countries recognized that Gaddafi should not be allowed to remain in power. In order to address the situation in Libya, the AU created an ad hoc commission to implement a roadmap to peace that called for many of the same actions carried out in the UN’s resolutions. Upon being denied entry into Libya by the NATO no-fly zone, the AU commission became increasingly hostile to outside intervention. The ostracising of its peace plan was what caused the AU to criticise NATO intervention.12 In other words, it was not the mission necessarily, but rather the way in which the mission was executed which the AU opposed. While the NATO mission never received the support of the AU, it is important to note the AU’s roadmap to peace not being followed does not disqualify the intervention’s “right intention” necessity. The AU publicly acknowledged the violence against civilians that was occurring and recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya before the death of Gadaffi. Furthermore, UN possesses the legitimacy to supersede the AU as is the ultimate arbitrary of R2P. Lastly, while the AU did not formally condone the intervention, the three African states that sat on the UNSC at the time did vote in favour of it.13

Responsibility to Protect requires that military action be taken only as a last resort and states that “military intervention can only be justified when every non-military option for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the crisis has been explored, with reasonable grounds for believing lesser measures would not have succeeded.” Immediately after violence broke out in Libya, the UNSC passed Resolution 1970. This resolution condemned “the gross and systematic violation of human rights”14 in Libya while imposing sanctions on Libyan officials and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court. This call from the international community did not deter Gaddafi, and the violence in Libya only increased. After one month of fighting, “following a range of earlier attempts to implement peaceful measures, such as diplomatic incentives, asset freezes, arms embargo, and ICC referral…(The UNSC) adopted

Resolution 1973”15 on March 17, 2011. This resolution ordered “an immediate establishment of a cease-fire”16 by all parties in the Libyan conflict. Despite this order, Gaddafi’s forces continued to fight across Eastern Libya in accordance with Gaddafi’s promise to the rebels that “we are coming tonight” and that there would be “no mercy or compassion”17 for those who opposed him. On March 19, state security forces entered the outskirts of Benghazi, the rebel stronghold which the regime had vowed to crush by any means necessary.18 It was not until Gaddafi’s forces moved into Benghazi that NATO initiated the first strike against regime targets. Through public statements and resolutions, the UN made it perfectly clear to the Gaddafi regime that further aggressions against civilians would not be tolerated. Despite these warnings, Gaddafi chose to continue to escalate the violence in Libya, and therefore left the UN with little choice but to intervene.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 completely affirms the fourth guideline of military intervention under R2P. The law states that “proportional means: The scale, duration and intensity of the planned military intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective”19 must be used when carrying out the military mission. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 explicitly denies the right of a “foreign occupation force”21 to invade Libya. Rather, it only allowed a no-fly zone to be implemented over Libya. The United Nations Security Council restricted NATO’s

military capability to what would be necessary to carry out its mission of protecting civilians.

The fifth and final guideline of military intervention under R2P requires reasonable prospects meaning “there must be a reasonable chance of success in halting or averting the suffering which has justified the intervention, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction.”20 In order to fully understand how the fifth guideline of R2P was met, it is necessary to place the military intervention into a proper context. The revolution in Libya did not occur in isolation. Rather, it was part of a larger regional movement now referred to as the Arab Spring. These revolutionary movements that started in Tunisia before spreading through Libya and across the Arab world began as demonstrations against dictators who had ruled their respective countries for decades. While most of the countries affected by the Arab Spring are no better off today than they were before their revolutions, in March of 2011 there was tremendous hope that the old order of autocracy was being swept away across the Arab world and could be replaced with democratic states. This hope was necessary to legally enact R2P. Given the circumstance present in Libya and across the Middle East, intervening on the side of the rebel forces appeared to offer Libya the chance to break out of a dictatorship and create a government and society in which individuals controlled their own destiny. Clearly there was a reasonable chance of success in the mission due to NATO’s overwhelming military capabilities compared to the Gaddafi regime’s. Furthermore, the consequences of inaction would have been mass slaughter of citizens at the hands of a dictator who would then remain in power indefinitely.

Critics of the 2011 NATO intervention claim that R2P was simply used as a cover under which NATO could instigate regime change in a hostile state. While NATO’s intervention did ultimately result in the ousting of the Gaddafi regime, the purpose of the intervention was to lawfully carry out R2P. After the no-fly zone was established, “Libya's army continued to shell other rebel-held cities, and its snipers were plainly targeting civilians.

Protecting all Libyans, not just those in the east, would require the end of Colonel Gaddafi's rule.”21 Gaddafi defied ruling after ruling by the international community acting through the UNSC. He repeatedly stated his willingness to fight to the end in order to crush the rebellion and remain in control of Libya. Because of this unfortunate reality, the only way to complete the mission of protecting the citizens of Libya was to destroy the regime which threatened them relentlessly.

Due to the legality of the intervention, it would seem as if the R2P was fully implemented by the international community; however, this was not the case. The legal framework for when and how to intervene under R2P was fully followed. However, the law also lists obligations for after the fighting ends. It states that “to see an intervention through means as well as the intervening side has to be prepared to remain engaged during the postintervention phase as long as necessary in order to achieve self-sustained stability. Coalitions or nations act irresponsibly if they intervene without the will to restore peace and stability, and to sustain a post-intervention operation for as long as necessary to do so.”22 Failure to adhere to this guideline is what made Libya a failed mission. While the initial intervention and the military mission was a complete success, Libya was abandoned upon its conclusion. This abandonment resulted in exactly what the ICSS report predicted when it states that “efforts to enhance post-conflict peace building” will be “undermined”25 if the proper post conflict operations are not carried out.

The reasons for the international community’s gaze leaving Libya after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime are numerous. Upon the ousting of Gaddafi and the conclusion of the civil war, Libya seemed to be in a much better position to succeed than most other post conflict societies in the Middle East. The rebel groups which had fought against Gaddafi were less sectarian than those throughout much of the Middle East. An insurgency which favoured a return to the old regime such as the one which materialized in Iraq was not likely to occur (and never did). Libya’s infrastructure escaped the war mostly intact, and its relative wealth and abundance of resources seemed to offer hope that a new government and society would be able to function normally.23 Partly due to this positive outlook, NATO was content to end its mission in Libya in October of 2011, and no NATO member states remained vigorously active in political developments within Libya. While many countries did reinstitute normal diplomatic relations with the new, post-Gaddafi Libyan government and the UN commissioned a small mission to assist in post-conflict stabilization, “Libyans were largely left to fend for themselves.”24 The international community’s involvement in Libya was very limited after October. No international peacekeeping forces were deployed by the UN, and NATO completely ended its mission. As described by the R2P legal framework, this was a recipe for disaster. While experiencing initial success in forming a new government and holding legitimate elections in July of 2012, “mounting violence that stunted efforts to establish functioning political institutions”25 has persisted across Libya for the past four years. The failure to prevent this violence and the insecurity which it entails had allowed numerous extremist groups including the Islamic State to begin operating in Libya.

A failure to understand R2P and the events which occurred in Libya might lead some to believe that Libya proves the concept of R2P to be a failed one; however, that is simply not correct. The parts of the intervention which followed the strict legal framework of R2P were completely successful. It was only after the international community ceased to abide by the ICCSS R2P guidelines that the mission in Libya went astray. That is, after the direct military intervention concluded, there was no effort to provide political stabilization and development in the wake of the conflict. Following NATO’s intervention in Bosnia in 1995, a significant post conflict operation immediately took effect. This included such actions as establishing an Office of the High Representative which was tasked with managing the political development of Bosnia in the immediate post-conflict era.26 Similarly, a large force of peacekeepers was deployed to Kosovo following NATO’s 1999 intervention. This was done in coordination with a new UN mission to assist Kosovo in its political and economic post-conflict development.27 These forces helped to prevent the states from sliding back into conflict. With Libya, this did not happen. It is true that attempting to establish a stabilization force to remain present in Libya until a level of political self-sufficiency could be reached would have been difficult. The NATO intervention was highly contested within the ranks of NATO itself, with France and England strongly encouraging the intervention, the US eventually agreeing to participate, and other states such as Germany opposing it (though only abstaining with their vote in the UNSC).28 It would have been difficult to reach an agreement to move from the use of airpower to a more dangerous and political risky situation of maintaining a ground presence in Libya. Furthermore, UNSC Resolution 1973, which gave NATO the mandate to intervene, expressly forbade a foreign “occupying force.”29 In order to comply with international law, any peacekeeping force would have had to be sanctioned by the UNSC. Lastly, the transitional government of Libya opposed foreign peacekeeping forces out of a fear of appearing less legitimate.30 However, none of these realities contradict the fact that while R2P’s legal framework was abided by, the mission was successful.

Responsibility to Protect was created by the UN in order to codify specific instances in which national sovereignty does not protect a state from foreign intervention due to humanitarian concerns. Both humanitarian interventions and the R2P principle and NATO’s intervention in Libya will remain controversial for the foreseeable future. While critics of the intervention will possess some evidence to argue their claims, two important realities should restrict them. First, the NATO intervention in Libya was legal under international law; second, the decision by the international community in October 2011 to abandon Libya was contrary to R2P and the true causation of strife in Libya today.


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Chivvis, Christopher and Jeffrey, Martin. “Libya after Qaddafi: Lessons and Implications for the Future.” RAND Corporation, 2014. Accessed December 2, 2016.

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366-379. Accessed November 29, 2016. 1/1468-2346.12022/pdf.

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Walt, Vivienne. “Gaddafi’s Son: Last Gasp of Libya’s Dying Regime.” Time Magazine. Feb. 21, 2011. Accessed November 25, 2016., 8599,2052842,00.html.


  1. Human Security Report Project, Human Security Report 2012: Sexual Violence, Education, and War: Beyond the Mainstream Narrative, (Vancouver: Human Security Press, 2012), accessed November 19, 2016, page 198,
  2. “Charter of the United Nations,” United Nations, October, 24 1945, accessed November 21, 2016,
  3. “International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty: Responsibility to Protect,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 2001, accessed December 1, 2016,
  4. “Core Documents: Understanding RtoP,” International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, accessed November 21, 2016,
  5. Luke Glanville, “The Responsibility to Protect beyond Borders,” Human Rights Law Review 12, no. 1 (2012), accessed November 20, 2016, pages 1-2,
  6. “Responsibility to Protect,” International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, page 32. 7 “Libyan Unrest Spreads to Tripoli as Benghazi Erupts,” Reuters, Feb. 20, 2011, accessed November 18, 2016,
  7. Vivienne Walt, “Gaddafi’s Son: Last Gasp of Libya’s Dying Regime,” Time Magazine, Feb. 21, 2011, accessed November 25, 2016,,8599,2052842,00.html.
  8. “Libya Protests: Defiant Gaddafi Refuses to Quit,” BBC, Feb. 22, 2011, accessed November 23, 2016,
  9. “Responsibility to Protect,” International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, page XII.
  10. “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, March 28, 2011, accessed November 29, 2016,
  11. Micah Zenko, “Think Again: Libya,” Foreign Policy, April 28, 2011, accessed December 1, 2016,
  12. Alex Dewaal, “African Roles in the Libyan Conflict,” International Affairs 89, no. 2 (2013): 366-379, accessed November 29, 2016, pages 370-371,
  13. Alex Dewaal, “The African Union and the Libya Conflict of 2011,” World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, December 19, 2012, accessed December 3, 2016,
  14. Resolution 1970 (2011), The United Nations Security Council, February 26, 2011, accessed November 22, 2016, page 1,
  15. “An Introduction to the Responsibility to Protect,” International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, accessed November 20, 2016,
  16. Resolution 1973 (2011), United Nations Security Council, March 17, 2011, accessed November 21, 2016, page 2,
  17. David Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim, “Qaddafi Warns of Assault on Benghazi as U.N. Vote Nears,” The New York Times, March 17, 2011, accessed December 2, 2016,
  18. Ibid.
  19. “Responsibility to Protect,” International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, page 37. 21 Resolution 1973 (2011), United Nations Security Council, page 3.
  20. “Responsibility to Protect,” International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, page XII.
  21. “The Lessons of Libya,” The Economist., May 19, 2011, accessed November 22, 2016,
  22. “Responsibility to Protect,” International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, page 64. 25 Ibid., page 64.
  23. Christopher Chivvis and Martini Jeffrey, “Libya after Qaddafi: Lessons and Implications for the Future,” RAND Corporation, 2014, accessed December 2, 2016, pages 1-3,
  24. Ibid., page 2.
  25. Ibid., page 2.
  26. “Mandate,” Office of the High Representative, accessed December 1, 2016,
  27. “United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo,” United Nations, accessed December 1, 2016,
  28. Richard Rousseau, “Why Germany Abstained on UN Resolution 1973 on Libya,” Foreign Policy Journal, June 22, 2011, accessed December 2, 2016,
  29. Resolution 1973 (2011), United Nations Security Council, page 3.
  30. Dan Murphy, “Libyan Rebels Reject UN Proposal for Peacekeepers,” The Christian Science Monitor, August 31, 2011, accessed November 30, 2016,

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