R2P, R.I.P.

A Libyan rebel fighter walks past graffiti depicting Muammar Gaddafi near Yafran, August 5, 2011

From David Rieff, the International Herald Tribune:  Those skeptics like myself who are wary of this interventionist paradigm must acknowledge that rejecting it might allow dictators like Qaddafi to stay in power. But its proponents must recognize that in the midst of rebellions such as the one in Libya, people cannot be protected without regime change. They have not recognized this, however, and partly as a result the campaign in Libya has done grave, possibly even irreparable, damage to R2P’s prospects of becoming a global norm. . . .

R2P is a doctrine born of good intentions, but one of its great drawbacks is that it turns war into a form of police work writ large, guided by fables of moral innocence and righteousness. War, even when it is waged for a just cause and with scrupulous respect for international humanitarian law, always involves a descent into barbarism (think of the way Qaddafi died). This is why even when R2P is applied well, it carries moral risks. And when it is distorted, as it was by NATO in Libya, R2P is not a needed reform to the international system, but a threat to its legitimacy. . . .

A doctrine of intervention that both claims the moral high ground and clamors its universality but under which the interveners are always from the Global North and the intervened upon always from the Global South is not moral progress; it is geopolitical business as usual.

Last month, while officials in Paris, London, and Washington were congratulating one another for a job well done in Libya, in the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia were vetoing, and Brazil and India were abstaining from, the imposition of far milder, nonmilitary sanctions against Syria. Clearly, no R2P-based, Libya-like interventions will get sanction from the U.N. in the foreseeable future.

One would never know it from all the victory talk in the West, but instead of strengthening R2P as a new global norm, the NATO intervention in Libya may well serve as its high water mark.

David Rieff is a New York-based journalist and the author of eight books, including “A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.”   (photo: Reuters)

Image: reuters%208%208%2011%20Gaddafi%20graffiti.jpg