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R2P from 10,000 feet

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19 April 2011 09:54

Those in favour of intervention in Libya were quick to cite R2P as the justification for their actions. As the conflict begins to resemble a stalemate, the disconnect between the message and the means has become apparent.

While I agree philosophically with the principle behind R2P, the devil is always in the detail. And unfortunately when one is looking at protecting a civilian population, it is not likely to be accomplished by aircraft, bombing targets from 10,000 feet. 

That is not to say no-fly zones or air supremacy are not a key element of achieving the aim of R2P — rather, while they are often necessary, they are rarely if ever sufficient.

Protecting people from other people needs to be done on the ground, with all the attendant risks that this entails. 

Little wonder then that governments are reluctant to seriously commit to the concept of R2P, when there are so many instances where it could be justified on humanitarian grounds, but few that are central to the national interest and consequently justify the risk ground forces will face.

Of course the 'boots on the ground' do not necessarily need to come from Western forces, so the use of air power to support well-trained and organised, but outgunned anti-government forces could achieve the desired aim. 

This description however doesn't apply to those forces in Libya, from what we have seen to date.

Seeing pictures of 'rebels' using recoilless rifles as impromptu mortars and anti-aircraft missiles as de-facto rocket propelled grenades, illustrates their naivety and lack of training.

Pictures of them racing Le Mans-style in headlong advance and then headlong retreat up and down the coastal highway also said much about their lack of tactical acumen and the lack of centralised control.

The fact that they have been able to hold onto some positions also says as much about the capability of Gaddafi's forces, as it does about the success of the coalition's air campaign.

Citing Rwanda as a justification for intervention based on the concept of R2P and then arguing for a no-fly zone confuses the ends and the means. 

A no-fly zone might provide a degree of protection, but doesn't guarantee it. And citing incidents of ethnic cleansing such as Rwanda and Bosnia as justification for intervening in a revolt against authoritarian rule in North Africa, is to take the concept of R2P to areas where UN member states may not like it to go. 

One of the lessons to be learnt from the Libyan experience will be the limits of protecting from 10,00 feet — it will be interesting to see the degree of support for future R2P interventions that do not include a ground component, with all the risks that this entails. 

Photo by Flickr user Michal Osmenda.

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