Responsibility to Protect implementation in Libya and the State of International Society

Aslihan Turan Zara

Libya’s intervention constitutes an important example and represents an evolution, not only for responsibility to protect (R2P) and the humanitarian intervention, but also for the transformation of the international society. The latter is one of the systemic forms used by the English school scholars to interpret world politics with the international system and the world society. While the international system consists in the interaction among states that constitute it, the world society asks for common values and interests that build a link between members of the human community, where the universality of morality and of rules are essential in the quest of justice and the respect for human rights[i].

Although aforementioned categories are part of the English school (ES) theory, it is the concept of international society that occupies a prominent role in its analytical interpretation of world politics. The international society, defined by Hedley Bull, designates a group of states, conscious of certain interests and common values, that form a society and which are bound by a series of rules and common institutions.[ii]The rules and institutions settle the conditions for the survival of the international society by limiting the violence, establishing peace, protecting the independence and sovereignty of states and respecting international agreements.[iii]

Even though the definition of Hedley Bull and the characteristics attributed to it are widely accepted by ES’s scholars, there are divergences among them consisting the prevalence of the protection of international order and the justice. The debate held between pluralist and solidarist wings of the school is also the heart of the discussions concerning the limits of the humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect (R2P) to prevent and stop mass atrocities.

R2P implementation in the case of Libya

The R2P report, presented by ICISS[iv]in 2001 and included in the Outcome Document of the 2005 high-level UN World Summit in 2005, was an attempt to enhance this discussion emphasizing that humanitarian interventions should not be addressed through “whether or not” to intervene but “how” to intervene. With this report, the immune sovereignty left its place, at least in discourse, to a responsible sovereign. The responsibility towards civil people includes not only its own people but also suffering people of third countries, and its main objective is to prevent the perpetration of mass atrocities and otherwise to halt them.[v]

The responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes (genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes) lays primarily to the state. However, the international community has the responsibility to assist the state to fulfil its responsibility and it should use peaceful means (diplomatic, economic and humanitarian) to protect populations. Where a state fails to protect its population or a state itself commits the above crimes, the international community could address to recourse to force against the state in question, only with the UNSC authorization.[vi]

The R2P became concretely visible when the international society decided to intervene in Libya’s civil war in 2011. The crisis in Libya was born following the democratic aspirations of the “Arab Spring”, which started in Tunisia in 2011, followed by the brutal reaction of the Gadhafi regime against protestors. In a timely and decisive way, as was anticipated by the R2P report, the UNSC adopted two consecutive resolutions, RES1970 and RES1973, in order to prevent further atrocities and stop the violence committed by the regime towards Libya people.[vii]

By its first resolution, RES1970, UNSC referred the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the significance of it hinges upon the fact that the international society completed its responsibility to protect by its responsibility to prosecute. (Walling, 234-235) In this framework, RES1970 was a sign that the UNSC members were following their commitment to 2005 Outcome Document and that the quest for justice was prevailing over the protection of sovereign rights. This perception was reinforced by a second resolution, RES1973. The specificity of the RES1973 was due to UNSC authorization to recourse to force against Libya, a sovereign government recognized and member of the UN, with the objective of protecting civilian population. The resolutions in question were promising for the future of the humanitarian action and are important for the evolution of both the R2P and the international society.

The causes and impacts of the Libya intervention

Libya is a representative case for the mutual evolution of the international society and humanitarian intervention. Resolutions 1970 and 1973 showed the determination of the international society to take seriously its responsibility towards suffering peoples. Nevertheless, even though international society has evolved when it comes to its approach in favour of human rights, it is hard to claim that the international society had been radically transformed with the adoption of the R2P report. Remarks have to be made by the society of states to adopt those resolutions; at a regional level, such as the Arab League or the African Union’s support for such an intervention; efforts at the individual level must be sought, including that of Navi Pillay (ex-president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). In the meantime, at the domestic level, there are also Libyan particularities, which differentiated it from previous humanitarian intervention cases: the evident call by Colonel Qadhafi for mass killings, the negative human rights protection record of the Libya regime, the lack of international alliances, the support for terrorism by the regime, rich petrol resources, weak army structure.[viii]

Resolutions 1970 and 1973 were promising for the future of the humanitarian intervention, but this promise soon faded. The international society fast changed its attitude after the military intervention started in Libya: the reaction by Russia, particularly Vladimir Putin, to condemn the abstention of Medvedev, as well as the reaction of the Arab League and African Union members becoming sceptical about the humanitarian purposes of the intervention because of the regime change in the country.

The Libya case is an exceptional example of the implementation of the R2P. In similar civil war and crisis situations, the international society did not take any action with R2P motivations, even though it was referred to in resolutions adopted for Mali or Sudan in 2013. However, within the international society, there is a change in favour of the protection of human rights. The international society’s awareness about the need to prevent mass atrocities is of considerable value. The General Assembly debate on the “responsibility to protect” held on 25 June 2018 is the proof of a tendency in this direction.




Aslihan Turan Zara is assistant professor at the Department of International Relations, Istanbul Okan University. Her PhD was on the concept of international society and humanitarian intervention. She focuses her research on international relations theories, specifically on English School theory and the conceptual and normative framework of humanitarian intervention / responsability to protect. 


[i]Tim Dunne, “The English school” in International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, 3d edition, Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, Steve Smith (ed.), Oxford University Press, 2013, 144-146. 

[ii]Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: The Study of Order in World Politics, New York, MacMillan Press, 1995, 13. (the institutions of the international society: international law, war, balance of power, diplomacy and the great powers)

[iii]Andrew Linklater and Hidemi Sigunami, The English School of International Relations: A Contemporary Reassessment, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, 56-57.

[iv]International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty

[v]ICISS, The Responsibility to Protect, Ottawa, the International Development Research Centre, December 2001, 8.

[vi]Alex J. Bellamy, The Responsibility to Protect: A Defence, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015, 2-3. (While enumerating the four crimes, Bellamy cited Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral agreement with Historical Illustrations, New York, Basic Books, 1977)

[vii]S/RES/1970 (2011), adopted by the Security Council at its 6491st meeting, on 26 February 2011.

  S/RES/1073 (2011), adopted by the Security Council at its 6498st meeting, on 17 March 2011.

[viii]Füsun Türkmen, “From Libya to Syria: The Rise and Fall of Humanitarian Intervention?”, prepared for presentation at the 2014 ACUNS Annual Meeting, June 19-21, 2014, Kadir Has University, Istanbul, 12-15.--





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