President Obama has used the protection of civilians as the primary rationale for initiating military action in Libya, with the support of the UN Security Council. Libya isn't the only country in crisis where interventions have been undertaken with an explicit objective to protect civilians. Ten UN peacekeeping operations have been authorized to use force to protect civilians - most recently in the Ivory Coast, where attack helicopters are being used to neutralize artillery that could be used against civilians in Abidjan. Beyond peacekeeping, the Coalition commanders in Afghanistan have released tactical directives on the protection of civilians.
The U.S. Administration, for political and practical reasons, is working to clarify what it means by the "protection of civilians," why it is a U.S. strategic interest and when and how the concept should be applied. President Obama began to address these issues in his March 28 speech at the National Defense University. But messaging is important insofar as words are followed by deeds on the ground.
The concept of Protection of Civilians has primarily been used to describe activities undertaken during consent-based interventions such as UN peacekeeping operations mandated and authorized to use force to protect civilians (as defined by international humanitarian law) under imminent threat of physical violence. The Obama Administration and the Security Council have now used the concept as the rationale for the non-consensual intervention in Libya. Given non-consensual interventions directly challenge international norms of sovereignty and usually require the application of greater military force, they are inherently more controversial and carry a different set of risks then consent-based interventions to protect civilians. The Administration and its allies would be well served to make a distinction between consent-based and non-consensual interventions to protect civilians so that the successes or failures of one do not undermine or artificially accelerate progress on the other.
Although the U.S. government has begun to adopt policies to prevent and respond to atrocities, guidance and doctrine (specific to the protection of civilians) for deployed military have yet to be developed. With such uncertainty, why should the United States and the international community risk action? There are moral, legal, practical and strategic reasons.
- In the 28 March speech, the President said "if we waited one more day, Benghazi ... could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."
- Leaders have also raised legal reasons, sighting international humanitarian and human rights laws and nascent norms that outline an international responsibility to protect.
- "The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution's future credibility to uphold global peace and security." (President Obama, March 28, 2011)
The third reason - practical and strategic - is the most critical. In today's conflicts, failing to act undermines the legitimacy and credibility of governments and inter-governmental bodies. A UN or coalition failure in one arena has implications for its actions in others.
Why is legitimacy and credibility so important in today's conflicts? The revolution in communication technology allows the capture and transmission of real or rumored abuses and atrocities in real time. This information has altered civilian engagement and influence in the outcome of war. How the conflicting parties, and international actors that intervene, are perceived affects how stakeholders on the ground (civilians that can either support a nascent state or an armed actor that challenges that state) and around the globe (voters and tax payers that are needed to support politicians and programs that fund interventions abroad) see their interests.
The international community has to adhere to at least three fundamentals in an intervention that aims to protect civilians:
1) Political Strategy. Military power remains a blunt instrument that is primarily designed to defeat an enemy, not to protect civilians. Although doctrine and guidance is being considered to guide militaries, sustainable peace and protection of rights requires a political strategy to decide whether military force is being used to freeze a conflict in order to bring parties to the table or to mitigate the risk to civilians while a conflict plays out. Once conflict ebbs, what strategy will bring diverse stakeholders to the table to find an appropriate way forward?
2) Positioning. The intervention should provide protection in an impartial fashion. In other words, the decision on whether and how to intervene should be primarily based on stopping the atrocity, not on who is perpetrating it. In the case of Libya, that means being clear that NATO is not siding with one armed actor or another and will protect civilians regardless of who is attacking them. Such a position can help deter rebels from targeting civilians or undertaking offensive operations that may harm civilians (beyond the bounds of international humanitarian law) and combat assertions that the operation is being undertaken for spurious reasons.
3) Planning. Effective planning for protection operations is critical to their success. If the protection of civilians is the principal objective of the operation, then every political, economic and military course of action must be designed to reduce harm to civilians. Such planning requires a deep understanding of the conflict dynamics. A very condensed summary of planning considerations include:
→ Identify which civilians are at risk, why and what actions they might take to protect themselves.
→ Identify who is threatening or perpetrating violence against civilians, why and how.
→ Choose courses of action that A) undermine or remove the ability of the perpetrators to attack civilians and B) reduce the vulnerability of the civilians at risk.
→ Anticipate and plan to mitigate potential negative consequences of these actions (in the short, medium and long-term) to civilians.
The President's 28 March speech at NDU touched on almost every fundamental outlined above - looking to a political solution and avoiding the issue of regime change through military power. Thus far, the NATO coalition seems to be following the fundamentals. But given the fact that several nations in the coalition - including the United States - have declared that regime change is a national policy goal, pressures to (a) arm or train rebels on one side of the conflict, (b) cobble together peace agreements that may be contested, and/or (c) legitimize governments that may be unrepresentative and corrupt could well contribute to further violence and abuse. Such actions undermine all three of the fundamentals outlined above and could tarnish the credibility and legitimacy of the protection of civilian doctrine, and the coalition effort as well.
Calls by the United States and allies for Qadhafi to step down should be separate from the military operation, based on his clear violations of human rights and/or international humanitarian law, and part of a political strategy that differentiates between Qadhafi and those directly responsible for abuses, and others who may need to be included in Libya's future government.