The invocation of the responsibility to protect (R2P) in Libya has drawn surprisingly intense criticism.

The United Nations was neither designed nor expected to be a pacifist organization. Its origins lie in the anti-Nazi wartime military alliance among Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. The all-powerful U.N. Security Council is the world’s duly sworn in sheriff for enforcing international law and order. It was given sharper focus and tougher enforcement powers than the League Council.

The system of collective security against interstate aggression never materialized. In the decades after World War II, the nature of armed conflict was transformed. Interstate warfare between uniformed armies gave way to irregular conflict between rival armed groups. The nature of the state too changed from its idealized European version. Many communist and some newly decolonized countries were internal security states whose regimes ruled through terror, often with U.S. material assistance and diplomatic support.

Increasingly, the principal victims of both types of violence were civilians. Advances in telecommunications brought the full horror of their plight into the world’s living rooms. In the meantime, the goals of promoting human rights and democratic governance, protecting civilian victims of humanitarian atrocities and punishing governmental perpetrators of mass crimes became more important.

R2P, first articulated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 and endorsed unanimously by world leaders in 2005, spoke eloquently to the need to change the U.N.’s normative framework in line with the changed reality of threats and victims.

R2P attempts to strike a balance between unilateral interference and institutionalized indifference. It was designed to help the world to be better prepared — normatively, organizationally and operationally — to meet the recurrent challenge of military intervention when atrocities are committed and something can be done by outsiders to save strangers at acceptable costs and risks: institutionalized nonindifference, if you will.

R2P’s preventive and rebuilding pillars involve strengthening a state’s capacity to handle its own law and order problems. The world’s comfort level is much greater with action under Pillar One (building state capacity) and Pillar Two (international assistance to build state capacity) than Pillar Three (international coercion, including military intervention). But to be meaningful, the R2P spectrum of action must include military force as the sharp-edge option of last resort.

By its very nature, including unpredictability, unintended consequences and the risk to innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, warfare is inherently brutal: There is nothing humanitarian about the means. Still, under contemporary conditions the fundamental question cannot be avoided: Under what circumstances is the use of force necessary, justified and required to provide effective international humanitarian protection to at-risk populations without the consent of their own government?

Absent R2P, intervention is more likely to be ad hoc, unilateral, self-interested and deeply divisive.

That was a key difference between Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003 and Libya this year. In the Balkans, it took NATO almost the full decade to intervene with air power. In Libya, it took one month to mobilize a broad coalition, secure a U.N. mandate, establish and enforce no-fly and no-drive zones, stop Moammar Gadhafi’s advancing army and prevent a massacre of the innocents in Benghazi.

Adopted March 17, Security Council Resolution 1973 was crafted to authorize and to delimit the scope of intervention. It specified the purpose of military action as humanitarian protection and limited the means to that goal at a time when Gadhafi loyalists were poised to recapture Benghazi, with almost a million people.

President Barack Obama, acting in concert with others, not unilaterally, set clear limits on goals and means. This did not please some shadow warriors. Referring to the role of Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power in overcoming the noninterventionist inclinations of the male defense secretary, national security adviser and counterterrorism chief Jacob Heibrunn derided Obama for effectively having been henpecked into interventionism by “these Valkyries of foreign affairs.”

Not to be outdone on misogyny, Mark Krikorian commented caustically that “our commander in chief is an effete vacillator who is pushed around by his female subordinates.”

The jury is still out on whether international military action in Libya will promote consolidation or softening of the R2P norm. The Libyan people’s euphoria and NATO’s relief over the successful military campaign to remove Gadhafi is likely to temper criticisms of the manner in which NATO rode roughshod over U.N. authorization to protect civilians.

In Libya, the West’s strategic interests coincided with U.N. values. This does not mean that the latter was subordinated to the former. It does mean, like Australia vis-à-vis East Timor in 1999, that there was a better prospect of sustained NATO engagement in an operation on its borders than if Western interests were not affected.

Paris, London and Washington — and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon — did not waver in their resolve, despite critics from the left pushing for diplomacy and critics from the right calling for boots on the ground. Too many seemed to expect and demand instant military gratification. Six months to overthrow an entrenched and determined dictator is not bad.

The outcome is a triumph first and foremost for the citizen soldiers who refused to let fear of Gadhafi determine their destiny any longer. It is a triumph secondly for R2P. NATO military muscle, deployed on behalf of U.N. political will, helped to level the killing field between citizens and a tyrant. It is possible for the international community, working through the U.N. structures and procedures, to deploy international force to neutralize the military might of a thug and intervene between him and his victims.

But the ruins of Libya’s political infrastructure and parlous state of its coffers mean that the third component of R2P — the international responsibility to rebuild — will also come into play.

Libya’s physical infrastructure remains largely intact as there was no Iraq-style shock-and-awe bombing campaign. The willingness, nature and duration of outside help will also help to shape the judgment of history on whether Western motivations were primarily self-interested geopolitical and commercial, or the disinterested desire to protect civilians from being killed.

As with the war itself, however, the lead role will have to be assumed by Libyans themselves. The international community can assist without assuming ownership of the process or responsibility for the outcome.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor of international relations at Australian National University and adjunct professor at the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University. His new book, “People vs. the State: Reflections on U.N. Authority, U.S. Power and the Responsibility to Protect,” will be published next month.

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