Where our responsibilities lie: The no-fly zone and responsibility to protect in Libya


On March 12, from 7:30 to 8:35 p.m., Al-Jazeera’s Libya Liveblog stuttered out a series of messages: the Arab League, an organization of nations spanning Northern Africa and the Middle East, asked the UN to intervene in Libya, specifically for a no-fly zone over the country.

A no-fly zone would prevent aircraft from rising in Libya. And while the actual effectiveness of the move has been debated from military and ethical standpoints, it would hopefully prevent government aircraft from harming more civilians. The concept has been kicked around for weeks now, but until now no local governments had spoken on the matter. The Arab League’s March 12 statement changed that.

The catch is, no military intervention. As Al-Jazeera’s James Bays reported, the Arab League doesn’t want foreign armies anywhere near the unsettled region.

The no-military clause is a theme in the talks about Libya. The Transitional National Council of Libya declared that they want no soldiers in Libya, and internationally, countries have been slow to get around to the idea. Maybe it’s not surprising; as professor Ramesh Thakur writes in the March 11 issue of Ottawa Citizen, Arab states “have a deep suspicion, with cause, of western military meddling in their affairs. Boots on the ground may be neither wanted, helpful, or even feasible.”

In Canada, most of the discussion about what to do or not do in Libya has come to R2P, or “Responsibility to Protect”, a principle adopted by the UN in 2005.

The Responsibility to Protect involves a series of actions to be taken in the event that a government cannot protect its own people. These actions begin with diplomatic condemnation and end in military involvement, when all other options have been exhausted.

In a March 2 Ottawa Citizen op-ed, Lloyd Axworthy and Alan Rock urge Canada to recognize R2P in their discussions to guide diplomatic and military actions. “Should Gadhafi defy world opinion and unleash massive force against his people, including a return to airstrikes (not impossible given his erratic history), the option to intervene militarily must be available.”

But while calls for R2P has been loud in the media, it’s been quiet in the government. In the March 11 issue of Edmonton Journal, Andrew Cohen references the Rock-Axworthy article and the R2P principle. He writes: “The United States doesn’t discuss it, Canada doesn’t invoke it, and Ignatieff, surprisingly, doesn’t demand it here with any passion.”

Canadian action has been limited so far to a single ship leaving port. On March 2, the frigate HMCS Charlottetown left Halifax to conduct rescue operations and humanitarian aid in Libya. On March 12, the Canadian National Forces website declared that all Canadian forces assisting with evacuation would withdraw on March 13, while the frigate HMCS Charlottetown would remain nearby. The ship could feasibly aid in any international military responses.

There is no telling what military action would do in Libya. Armies are complicated and the politics behind them are even worse, and while we’d like to be able to fix everything wrong with the situation in Libya, we can’t tell if military intervention will or will not take us there.

On the other hand, I remember reading the Twitter posts from before this revolution became a civil war, calling for international aid. One user, under the handle of ChangeinLibya, posted, “FOR GODS SAKE WORLD WAKE UP.”

Despite the sanctions, the talks and the requests, and despite the efforts and best intentions of the nations near and far from Libya, civilians are still in danger. And I hope that Canada and the world acts with the people’s best interest ahead of everything else.

  • confused

    Several arab countries have modern airforces that are up to the task, why can’t the Arab world take care of this?