USIP’s Lawrence Woocher reacts to President Obama’s speech on Libya, genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect.

Does the U.S. have a national interest to prevent atrocities from happening in Libya?

I would argue that it is in the U.S. national interest to prevent mass atrocities from happening anywhere, including in Libya. This interest is derived partly from the intersection of atrocities with political instability, massive humanitarian demands, and other ills that the United States has an interest in preventing.

As President Obama said, "America has an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him.  A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful –- yet fragile -– transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.  The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power."

And, perhaps more importantly, engaging seriously in preventing atrocities signals powerfully to the world that U.S. rhetorical commitments to human rights and liberty are not empty. This enhances America’s "soft power," helping to foster an international environment that is conducive to promoting American goals.

Does the international community have a responsibility to protect people from atrocities when a nation is committing those atrocities or fails to protect its own citizens?

In 2005, all governments accepted each individual state’s responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and the international community’s responsibility “to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means” to help protect populations from these crimes. Governments further stated “we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner…should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations” from these atrocities. According to governments’ own commitments, thus, the nature of the international community’s responsibility depends on the type of action required to protect populations. Its responsibility clearly extends to the use of non-coercive means, but governments have not accepted a responsibility to enact sanctions or use force, only to be “prepared to take collective action” should peaceful means fail.

What messages from President Obama's speech last night intersect with your work on mass atrocity prevention?

The president stressed that both strategic interests and American values pushed him to order military action designed to prevent the mass slaughter of innocent Libyans. The concurrence of interests and values is a theme that runs through much of USIP’s work on the prevention of violent conflict and mass atrocities, including for example, the Genocide Prevention Task Force. Acting before violence becomes full blown not only saves lives, but also treasure, and it can ease a host of burdens that accompany large-scale violence--e.g., massive humanitarian needs, long-lasting regional instability, and demands for post-conflict justice and accountability.

"We were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," according to President Obama, arguing that had Qadaffi’s forces captured Benghazi, it could have suffered “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” The President called directly to Americans’ sense of values: "To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.” Almost in the same breath, the President declared "America has an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him." He cited the risk that refugee flows could threaten democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the potential for others around the world to conclude that violent repression is an effective survival strategy and that the United Nations demands are “empty words."

Is the international community learning how better to respond to brutality by dictators against civilians?

The signs are mixed. On the positive side, the prevailing debate from the 1990s, which pitted the "right of humanitarian intervention" against strict conceptions of sovereignty and non-intervention, has largely shifted to discussion of the "responsibility to protect” populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Governments unanimously accepted the responsibility to protect at the 2005 World Summit, and the United Nations Security Council invoked Libya’s responsibility to protect in its recent resolutions--reportedly without controversy. On the negative side, there continue to be cases where mass violence is threatened but effective international action is wanting. The current situation in Cote d’Ivoire comes to mind. Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the presidential election to Alassane Ouattara, refuses to leave power. Hundreds have been killed in the post-electoral violence and hundreds of thousands have fled in this crisis that is likely to get significantly worse, jeopardizing stability in all of West Africa.

Related Publications

Thomas Hill on the U.N. Mission in Libya

Thomas Hill on the U.N. Mission in Libya

Thursday, January 26, 2023

By: Thomas M. Hill

Twelve years since the fall of Qaddafi, the United Nations' Libya mission carries the same mandate as it did in 2011. With the country still experiencing various degrees of conflict and upheaval, it’s time to “re-envision what we want the U.N. to do” in Libya and create a “mandate [that] will reflect that,” says USIP’s Thomas Hill.

Type: Podcast

The U.N.’s Libya Mission Needs a Reset

The U.N.’s Libya Mission Needs a Reset

Monday, January 9, 2023

By: Thomas M. Hill;  Martin Pimentel

Nearly 12 years since the overthrow of Libya’s longtime dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, the country remains divided, providing opportunities for malign foreign interference. European and Middle Eastern governments have exploited the Libyan conflict to advance narrow self-interests — often at the expense of the Libyan people. Against this backdrop, the United Nations, via its support mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has worked to find a way to balance the interests of the Libyan people, political elites and powerful external actors to devise a political settlement and resolve the conflict.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

From Factionalism to Foreign Interference: Libya’s Conflict Remains Frozen

From Factionalism to Foreign Interference: Libya’s Conflict Remains Frozen

Thursday, November 3, 2022

By: Ahmed Alsharkasi

Over 11 years after the death of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s conflict is seemingly stuck in place. Rival governments in the country’s East and West, factionalism, militia warfare and foreign interference have all contributed to a complex conflict that still has no resolution in sight. In a bid to advance the peace process, the United Nations convened the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in late 2020 with 75 Libyans from across the country’s diverse social and political spectrum. Among other things, participants agreed on a roadmap for national elections to be held on December 24, 2021.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global PolicyPeace Processes

Ask the Experts: What Drives Libya’s Fragility?

Ask the Experts: What Drives Libya’s Fragility?

Monday, October 31, 2022

By: Andrew Cheatham

Libya has been trapped in cycles of violence and political instability since the 2011 revolution. Competing factions within Libya’s political, business and military elite have spent the last decade alternating between violent conflict and ineffective power-sharing agreements. Meanwhile, foreign powers have interfered in pursuit of their own geopolitical agendas, undermining international mediation efforts by the United Nations and others. USIP’s Andrew Cheatham spoke with two Libya experts to discuss what’s behind the country’s protracted fragility crisis and how Libya can move toward peace and democratic governance.

Type: Blog

Fragility & Resilience

View All Publications