May/June 2011, Pages 44-45

United Nations Report

Resolution 1973: Responsibility to Protect, Not Humanitarian Intervention in Libya

By Ian Williams

With Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya, the U.N. for the first time effectively fulfilled its mandate under the concept of Responsibility to Protect that the General Assembly accepted in 2005. The resolution called for member nations to undertake the protection of Libyan civilians—but ruled out the involvement of ground forces or "occupation."

The background of the present actions and attitudes in Libya owe much to the first Gulf war. The very concept of Responsibility to Protect owes its origins to Desert Storm two decades ago, and to the suspicion that surrounded it. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, it was in clear violation of the U.N. Charter, which was drafted to stop just such annexations. For those who might be cynical about the organization's accomplishments, no member of the U.N. has been invaded and annexed since those early days, which is of course one of the reasons why Palestine wants recognized membership—and why Israel does not want it to. Countries have been invaded, and regime changes effected, as when Tanzania chased Idi Amin out of Uganda, or indeed India's war against Pakistan led to the establishment of Bangladesh—but no member state has involuntarily disappeared.

Initially the U.N. imposed sanctions on Iraq, and when Saddam did not withdraw from Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush, using a broad U.N. mandate, assembled a genuinely wide coalition including contingents from most of the Arab world—and American technology and airpower inflicted devastating economic damage on Iraq from which its infrastructure has never really recovered. In the aftermath of the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, President Bush knew that the coalition he had assembled to liberate Kuwait would fall apart if Desert Storm became an invasion of Iraq in turn. He did not go to Baghdad, and the Shi'i of the south and the Kurds in the north, whom the U.S. had encouraged to revolt, were left to their fates as Saddam Hussain reasserted control.

And that is where the modern concept of humanitarian intervention, now called the Responsibility to Protect, came from. The French invoked it to help the Kurds, whom Washington was leaving to a bloody fate in the mountains. John Major, Britain's prime minister, hovered uncertainly, until his predecessor Margaret Thatcher made it plain that if she were still in office, she would certainly intervene, shaming both Major and Bush into going along.

No U.N. member state has involuntarily disappeared—which is why Palestine wants membership.

At the time the U.N. could produce no public precedent for the concept. Although its more zealous legal scholars did discover that Hitler had (ab)used the concept to justify going into Czechoslovakia to rescue the Sudeten Germans, they were politic enough to ventilate their discovery.

When, in 2005, with Srebrenica and Rwanda (not to mention Sabra and Shatila, because few people did) behind it, the U.N. and many of its members felt that something must be done to defend populations against governments, they did not want to invoke "humanitarian intervention." The abuse of the concept in Iraq had given intervention a bad name, even before Tony Blair invoked it to cover the embarrassing lack of weapons of mass destruction. "Responsibility to Protect" was in some measure a marketing concept, less aggressive in tone.

When it came to applying the concept in the Security Council, however, the long shadow of Iraq and American arrogance, combined with the politics of Russia and China, led to deadlock. The Russians had, in post-Glasnost euphoria, gone along with the New World Order—only to find that they had been suckered by the triumphalists in Washington.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for example, was Moscow's U.N. ambassador for the long years in which the U.S. and UK (and initially France as well, lest we forget) insisted on "implementing" the resolutions against Saddam Hussain's Iraq far beyond any reasonable interpretation and equally beyond the wishes of members on the Council.

The sanctions passed in 1990 were maintained, and Washington and London continued air strikes claiming a mandate from the original resolutions. Indeed they claimed that they authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq, although few other people accepted the claim.

In addition, Russia's behavior in Chechnya certainly could have merited invocation of the principle, while China saw every invocation of the subject as the beginning of a Long March through Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. To be fair, China also suffered, with India, a history of foreign interference that left long nationalist memories.

The veto might have been necessary to get the Soviet Union and the U.S. to sign on to the original United Nations Charter, but in the hands of suspicious states it can turn the Security Council into the diplomatic equivalent of a Sumo dojo, the ring in which massive wrestlers grunt and pant in immobility until suddenly one of them is hoisted out of the ring. A veto plus that pervasive suspicion is enough to inhibit fine tuning of resolutions in a way to ensure command and control.

And so came Resolution 1973, which passed with five abstentions. It helps that Colonel Qaddafi's eccentricities left him few friends in the region, and most of those would not stick around if the money supply ran out, as it was sure to do with sanctions abroad and revolt at home.

Russia and China could have vetoed the resolution, but if they had they would have fallen athwart of the Arab League, as well as the West. Brazil and India were showing independence and the German foreign minister, by all accounts, was writing his resignation letter as a result of the vote.

Certainly the resolution could have been better written, but its injunction to protect civilians, using force if necessary, called Qaddafi's bluff. He was, after all, defying an earlier resolution and clear signals from member states to stop his repression.

The suspicions of U.S. intentions meant that Resolution 1973 precludes occupying forces on the ground, which obviously hearkens back to the bitter experiences of the previous two decades. Not only did it call for a no-fly zone, as requested by the Arab League, it "authorizes member states that have notified the secretary-general, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the secretary-general, to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya...while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory."

Learning from previous liberties taken by Washington, it also "requests the member states concerned to inform the secretary-general immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council."

For the no-fly zone it "authorizes member states that have notified the secretary-general and the secretary-general of the League of Arab States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights," and "requests the states concerned in cooperation with the League of Arab States to coordinate closely with the secretary-general on the measures they are taking to implement this ban."

In between calling for liaison of activities with the secretaries-general of the U.N. and Arab League, it mandates Ban Ki-moon "to report to the Council within 7 days and every month thereafter on the implementation of this resolution."

Politically that should be enough to inhibit reckless enthusiasm for technological mayhem on the part of the U.S. or other participants, who would be bound to call a halt if the Arab League or the U.N. secretary-general thought they were going too far. Even so, one would have thought that the Russians, at least, would have learned to put a sunset clause in the resolution so that its effect would not be prolonged past its useful life. That they didn't suggests negligence or satisfaction with the results.

Of course the big question even 20 years ago was, why punish an Arab state for defiance of U.N. resolutions when Israel gets off scot-free? Sadly, this is a question that must be addressed to Washington. There is clear evidence that most members would indeed like to address, for example, settlement building, or the use of heavy weaponry against civilians.

Goldstone's Revealing Fate

In that context, the fate of Judge Richard Goldstone was revealing. It only took a few hundred incoherent and inconsistent words in the April 2 Washington Post to convert the former self-hating traitor to the Jewish people, duplicitous Israel-hater and traitor to become a Daniel come to judgement whose every word is amplified by the very Israeli ministers and American Zionist leaders who had been reviling him for the last two years.

All proclaimed that he had "retracted" the report and in effect exonerated Israel of the allegations made against its forces in the course of Operation Cast Lead. Israeli ministers called on the U.N. to drop the Goldstone Report.

However, there are some substantial objections to that. Firstly, while his name is indeed on the report, he had three other jurists with him, none of whom so far has wavered. The report was commissioned and adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council, and also by the U.N. General Assembly. Even the British have demurred at the idea that an evasive short editorial by one member of the team is grounds for overturning a chain of U.N. resolutions.

And evasive the wording is. The closest thing to a retraction is the sentence, "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document."

As a distinguished jurist, Goldstone must know that his wording could mean almost anything. Even so, the tone of his editorial suggests that he is now giving undue weight to the Israeli attempts at whitewash investigations—and ignoring the obvious fact that, without the report, Israel would not have even pretended to begin investigations.

Indeed, the tone of his op-ed is of someone writing under duress and wondering how much he could give his tormentors and yet retain a modicum of self-respect. We can guess who his torturers were: pretty much the entire pro-Israeli establishment worldwide which since the report came out has excluded him from the community that clearly was so important to him, reviled him, demonized him, and even at one point barred him from his grandson's bar-mitzvah.

One's sympathy is all the stronger since, no matter what he gives them, they will never forgive him. Where one loses sympathy, however, is when he claims "the most serious attack the Goldstone Report focused on was the killing of some 29 members of the al-Simouni family in their home. The shelling of the home was apparently [my italics] the consequence of an Israeli commander's erroneous interpretation of a drone image, and an Israeli officer is under investigation for having ordered the attack. While the length of this investigation is frustrating, it appears that an appropriate process is underway, and I am confident that if the officer is found to have been negligent, Israel will respond accordingly."

There is nothing in real life, or in Goldston's report, to justify such confidence in an Israeli process—let alone response. The Simouni massacre goes far beyond negligence, as attested to by U.N. and ICRC sources. For example, how can "negligence" explain keeping the ambulances away, leaving wounded children whimpering with the festering corpses of their family for days on end?

Goldstone has always had a deserved reputation for integrity and service to international justice. They must have really applied the thumbscrews to extract a travesty like this out of him.

However, in an April 5 interview, Goldstone did tell the Associated Press that "as presently advised I have no reason to believe any part of the report needs to be reconsidered at this time."

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations and has a blog at