May 14, 2011 / 1:13 AM / 9 years ago

Analysis: U.N. protection of civilians at issue after Libya

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Recent U.N. resolutions on Libya broke new ground in backing international action to protect civilians, but the stalemated civil war that has ensued could roll back those advances, diplomats and analysts say.

Russia, China and other powers have voiced dismay that the world body has appeared to take sides in an internal conflict, not just in Libya but also in Ivory Coast, where a Security Council resolution led to the ousting of an incumbent ruler.

As a result, veto-holders Russia and China may not be as willing in future to permit sweeping endorsements for tough action, either by a coalition — as in Libya — or by U.N. peacekeepers — as in Ivory Coast, diplomats say.

No one contests the principle of protecting civilians during armed conflict, a theme that has been on the Security Council agenda for more than a decade. The skeptics’ concern is that it will be used as a cover by Western powers bent on overthrowing leaders they do not like.

More generally, it raises the specter of “interference in the internal affairs” of sovereign states, a taboo for Moscow and Beijing for decades.

In Libya, a March 17 Security Council resolution authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians as Tripoli looked set to crush rebels who had seized control of the east. Western air and missile strikes on the forces of leader Muammar Gaddafi drove them back from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

It was the first time the Council had authorized a military response to protect populations in a non-consenting state.

In Ivory Coast, a similarly worded resolution passed on March 30 resulted in military action by French and U.N. peacekeepers that culminated 12 days later in the arrest of Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to cede power after a presidential election the United Nations said he lost.

As a consequence, Gbagbo’s challenger, Alassane Ouattara, took over the West African country.


Following the two resolutions, human rights groups were ecstatic over what they saw as a new willingness by the United Nations to enforce principles to which it had long paid lip service.

Russia and China, faced with an Arab League call for U.N. action on Libya and West African support over Ivory Coast, had abstained in the first resolution and voted for the second.

But both soon made clear they thought the United Nations was at risk of overstepping its authority — not protecting civilians but backing one faction in a civil conflict.

At a Security Council debate this week, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said it was “unacceptable for U.N. peacekeepers ... to be drawn into armed conflict and essentially to take the side of one of the parties.”

Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong said, “There must be no attempt at regime change or involvement in a civil war of a country by any party in the name of protecting civilians.” Similar concerns have been expressed by Brazil, India and South Africa, which are also on the Security Council.

The implications have not been lost on Western diplomats who had hoped the Council’s adoption of the Libya and Ivory Coast resolutions might set a precedent.

“There was a chance to create a model for the protection of civilians in Libya. But now it’s going to be very difficult in the future to persuade Russia and China to support such operations,” a diplomat said.

An immediate casualty could be a Western attempt to bring about Security Council action on Syria’s violent crackdown on anti-government protesters. “Some people are cautious in the context of Libya,” a diplomat commented.


Protection of civilians is written into the mandate of at least seven U.N. peacekeeping forces around the world and has been the subject of regular reports by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor, Kofi Annan.

These, however, have tended to focus on the soft end of the subject, such as programs to train peacekeepers, rather than the sharp end of NATO bombing a government army, as in Libya.

The subject also has become enmeshed with an arcane debate at the United Nations over whether the world body has a “responsibility to protect” — or R2P in U.N. jargon — populations threatened by genocide or other mass atrocities.

That concept was launched in a 2005 summit of more than 150 world leaders in a belated response to a perceived U.N. failure to prevent massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s.

A carefully crafted declaration said the responsibility began with the government of the country concerned. If that failed, it foresaw a sliding scale of international action ranging from advice through mediation to — in a last resort — intervention by force authorized by the Security Council.

A General Assembly conference two years ago showed that most U.N. members broadly supported R2P, but envoys from leftist states in Latin America and elsewhere denounced it as a smokescreen for “colonialism and interventionism” by the West.

Some diplomats say that if the Libyan insurrection had toppled Gaddafi in a couple of weeks, rather than extending into a drawn-out civil war, concerns about how protection of civilians was to be interpreted would have been far fewer.

Supporters of R2P say that was never likely to happen and it was too soon to say the concept was fatally damaged.

But Ramesh Thakur of the Australian National University said, “The evolution of R2P, and prospects of its being authorized/used again, will depend on how Libya turns out. If NATO respects its limitations and success is achieved, R2P stands vindicated. If (resolution) 1973 (on Libya) is abused and a messy stalemate ensues, the bar will be greatly raised.”

Editing by Paul Simao

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