Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

New Texts Out Now: Ayca Cubukcu, The Responsibility to Protect: Libya and the Problem of Transnational Solidarity

[Cover of the [Cover of the "Journal of Human Rights"]

Ayça Çubukçu, The Responsibility to Protect: Libya and the Problem of Transnational Solidarity,” Humanitarianism and Responsibility, special issue of Journal of Human Rights 12 (2013).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Ayça Çubukçu (AÇ): This article originated in a piece I wrote for Jadaliyya during the vitalizing days of the Arab Spring, in the heat of debate about the virtues of an international military intervention in Libya. As Jadaliyya readers would recall, following the February 2011 uprising against Colonel Qaddafi in eastern Libya, there were calls for the international community to intervene, if necessary with violence, into Libyan affairs. A global public was told, left and right, that the international community had the responsibility to protect Libyans from impending massacres by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces.

Yet proposals for the use of international military force against the Qaddafi regime led to passionate disagreements, even among familiar proponents of humanitarian intervention. Such proposals also divided those traditionally opposed to military interventions along anti-imperialist lines. This article emerged as an effort to make sense of these disagreements and to identify some of the conflicting (as well as common) political and ethical dispositions grounding them. While I attempt to distill from these debates different visions of what transnational solidarity demands in the contemporary political conjuncture, I also adopt a historical perspective in analyzing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, and the sensibilities of cosmopolitanism that it mobilizes.

I must add that the impetus for this article was a desire to clarify my own thinking in conversation with political and intellectual companions who either took an explicit stance in support of the military intervention in Libya or decided to oppose it publicly. Then, of course, there were those who could not but inhabit a space or moment of “indecision,” for lack of a better characterization.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

AÇ: The first part of the article examines some of the legal, ethical, and political dimensions of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine by engaging with cosmopolitan proposals for its application to Libya before the international military action to enforce it was initiated in March 2011. It presents reflections of a historical kind on state sovereignty, international community, and the political theology of humanitarian intervention. In this section, I also attend to the nature of the moral imperative underpinning cosmopolitan assertions of responsibility to save lives in Libya.

The second part reflects on the official recognition of the Transitional National Council as the sole legitimate authority on Libyan territory by the enforcers of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, and situates this act of recognition within a history of colonial practices in the domain of international law. It argues that the language of “protection” deployed throughout the intervention in Libya should occasion more than a passing thought on the similarities between actual practices now associated with the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, and the colonial practices that European empires effected within the legal framework of “the protectorate” in the late nineteenth century. In this section of the article, I also discuss the prominence of imperial sensibilities in the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

The last and the most provisional part of the piece evaluates disagreements among certain anti-imperialist commentators—Gilbert Achcar and Alain Badiou, to name two—over the desirability of a military intervention in Libya. Here, by analyzing arguments over its proper requirements in the case of Libya, I explore the politics of a transnational solidarity with anti-imperialist commitments.  While calling for a renewed critique of violence, I conclude the article by highlighting telling difficulties that afflict attempts to differentiate acts of “foreign intervention” from acts of “transnational solidarity.”

I argue that what resides in the difficulty of distinguishing acts of transnational solidarity from acts of foreign intervention are the mutable borders of the political communities we imagine, the importance we attach to their autonomy, and who we take to be the proper subject of politics within those borders. Without those borders, neither the distinction between “national” and “foreigner,” nor the distinction between “solidarity” and “intervention,” would make much sense.

As for particular literatures that "The Responsibility to Protect: Libya and the Problem of Transnational Solidarity" addresses: I am thinking in the article alongside critical scholars in the fields of political and social theory, international law, intellectual history, international relations, and postcolonial studies. There are also a variety of public commentators outside academia who are my interlocutors in this piece.

J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

AÇ: The subject matter of this article falls well within my (previous and current) research field: the politics, history, and philosophy of human rights, international law, and cosmopolitanism, especially in relation to imperial practices. I have also been interested in examining how facts of social and cultural difference and political resistance are managed—if necessary with violence—by a liberalism that is dedicated to the idea of peace. In this field, I have been thinking about the commonalities and differences among various traditions of thought and practice associated with cosmopolitanism and internationalism.

As I discuss in a previous interview with Jadaliyya, some of my previous work focused on the 2003 occupation of Iraq and addressed the politics of international law, human rights, and cosmopolitanism in relation to that occupation. But the military intervention in Libya presented an additional set of issues, as it involved certain forces uprising against Colonel Qaddafi who demanded a military intervention from the “international community” in the name of all Libyans. That “the rebels” articulated this demand in the language of international law, referring to the international community’s obligation to protect Libyans from genocide and crimes against humanity, is quite noteworthy. Especially since they shared this language in common with the leadership of NATO—that is to say, the United States, Britain, and France. All of this and more—including the occupations of Iraq and Palestine through international law—make me contend, in the company of other scholars, that it is time to attend critically to the political project and colonial history of international law.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AÇ: The military intervention in Libya raised anew and urgently the question of self-determination (what it meant and what it demanded) and placed it in a particular constellation with the problem of transnational solidarity: what it means and demands today. In this context, exceptionally passionate and revealing debates took place among heads of state, in recently improvised and long-standing international institutions alike. The United Nations Security Council, the African Union, the Arab League, NATO, the European Union—all of them were occupied by deliberations about the intervention in Libya. Some questions raised in these venues were also posed by “non-state actors” who debated the world over what was to be done with the situation in Libya, as they urged protection or solidarity, self-determination or revolution, and applauded the Arab Spring.

When trying to address these intense debates,, a particular way of posing a problematic I had too vaguely in mind until then occurred to me. That problematic is now the subject matter of a new research group I am convening at the London School of Economics and Political Science, which is named Internationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Politics of Solidarity.

The rationale for this research group goes like this: Given the frequent overlap, in theory and practice, between visions of internationalism and cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and the remarkable internal variation—to the extent that two different and coherent bodies of thought can be said to exist in the first place—within internationalism and cosmopolitanism on the other, how should we think about the divergences and convergences between these two visions? When different versions of internationalism and cosmopolitanism as expounded and practiced by various theological traditions are added to the matrix along with their feminist, anarchist, regionalist, Third-Worldist, nationalist, and militarist articulations, the nature of the two-headed monster proves too complicated to grasp in a single breath. Internationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Politics of Solidarity is constituted as an interdisciplinary research group to address this problem. It aims to explore the politics of transnational solidarity by addressing the complications that arise in attempts to define, critique, and practice various strands of internationalism and cosmopolitanism.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AÇ: An audience around the world comfortable enough in the English language, I could only hope, can read this article. Scholars and students in the social sciences, humanities, and law, as well as others (including that capacious category of people called “human rights practitioners” who range from NGO workers to NATO soldiers) may be particularly interested in the reflections presented in the article—especially if they would like to think about humanitarian violence and transnational solidarity according to different visions of internationalism, legal or otherwise. Among this potential audience, I am particularly pleased to invite Jadaliyya readers to get in touch if they would like to participate in the research network on Internationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Politics of Transnational Solidarity.

Excerpt from “The Responsibility to Protect: Libya and the Problem of Transnational Solidarity”

Considering such [anti-imperialist] disputes over what proper transnational solidarity demanded in the case of Libya, the first problem was to identify what it would mean in practice to support the political autonomy and independence of a national struggle that was to self-determine in principle. Confronted with this problem, along with Achcar (and leaders of NATO, it must be added) some recognized a singular “legitimate authority” that allegedly represented all Libyans and proceeded to affirm and echo its “request” for an intervention. Others—among them anti-imperialist commentators such as Alain Badiou and Edward S. Herman, the coauthor with Noam Chomsky of Manufacturing Consent—expressed aversion at this very request (Herman 2011), as if the demand for intervention already compromised, in principle and/or in practice, the autonomy and independence not only of the “national” struggle in Libya but also of other uprisings throughout “the Arab world.”[1]

A concurrent problem to be addressed from the perspective of transnational solidarity was to identify and relate legitimate means and legitimate ends. In the case of Libya, apart from certain anti-imperialists such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, several other leaders of Latin American states, and yet others who saw in Qaddafi an anti-imperialist to be supported against imperialist aggression in the first place, many anti-imperialists appeared to agree with the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein that toppling Qaddafi was a legitimate end in itself (Wallerstein 2011). For the first camp of anti-imperialists who took the task of transnational solidarity to be mobilizing support for Colonel Qaddafi, the NATO intervention did not present a difficult case to resolve, as the task was crystal clear: To oppose the intervention as an illegitimate means to an illegitimate end. For those anti-imperialists who accepted the overthrow of Qaddafi as a legitimate end, however, there was a remaining—and divisive—question, namely, what the legitimate means of achieving this legitimate end could and could not be. In this camp of anti-imperialists attempting to identify the demands of transnational solidarity, disagreements over the problem of legitimate means in toppling Qaddafi solidified in relation to three related, if disproportionately discussed, vectors: (1) The question of a foreign military intervention; (2) the autonomy and agency, character, and “requests” of the uprising in Libya; (3) the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia.

Thus, regarding the problem of legitimate means, multiple versions of the following questions solidified. Was foreign military intervention ever a legitimate means to overthrow a repressive regime? Was foreign intervention a legitimate means when requested by “national” revolutionaries? (This question was especially pertinent if what was seen to be happening was a nation-wide revolution, rather than a “civil war” between competing loyalties in eastern and western Libya.) Did respecting the autonomy and agency of revolutionaries in Libya require agreeing to support their call for an international intervention? What would the implications of supporting a foreign intervention as a legitimate means be in the larger context of the Arab Spring, the Middle East, or Africa? Would a “foreign” intervention by the “neighbors” of Libya be a legitimate means? To the extent that anti-imperialist in this camp saw both the “political goal” of overthrowing Qaddafi and the “humanitarian goal” of saving lives as a legitimate end, questions about legitimate means were posed towards both ends. Finally, it is important to observe for the record that, like the enforcers of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, no one in this anti-imperialist camp appeared to dispute an armed uprising as a legitimate means to either end.


[1] Effectively, “the Libyan revolt [was] condemned by the ‘anti-imperialists’ as ex post facto counter-revolutionary because of Western intervention” (Proyect 2011: para. 29). 

[Excerpted from “The Responsibility to Protect: Libya and the Problem of Transnational Solidarity,” by Ayça Çubukçu, by permission of the author. © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC. For more information, or to purchase this article or the full issue of the Journal of Human Rights, click here. Address correspondence to: Dr. Ayça Çubukçu, Centre for the Study of Human Rights / Department of Sociology /London School of Economics and Political Science/ Houghton Street / London WC2A 2AE / United Kingdom. Email:]

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T