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.

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