Libyans are begging to be saved, we have been told. We are also told that the international community has the responsibility to protect Libyans. It is now March 11, 2011. Yesterday, the Republic of France recognized the sovereignty of the Interim Transitional National Council of the Libyan Republic, presumably as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. France is scheduled to send an ambassador to Benghazi soon, but she may arrive too late, or too early. Everything depends on how transitional or permanent the new “government” will be, located as it is “in the City of Benghazi, the temporary location, till the liberation of Tripoli the Capital City and the permanent location of the Council,” as its founders declared on March 5, 2011.
Reacting to news of the French recognition, a representative of the Interim Transitional National Council reportedly thanked the French Government, claiming that the Libyan people were “very grateful” to the French. Such gratitude is not exceptional in France’s imperial history, of course, punctuated as it is by the revolutionary violence, guidance, and occupation offered as “liberation” and fraternal assistance to oppressed peoples. Haitians may testify to the nature of France’s universal values, and their proper application.
Libyans are begging to be saved, we are told. From humanitarians to ideologues, newspaper editors to heads-of-state, “the international community” is petitioning to save Libyans. The United States, the European Union, the Arab League, and NATO are considering the imposition of a no-fly zone and other military “options,” citing the need to protect Libyans. NATO has already moved warships and planes close to Libya. Analysts have warned that such an apparently harmless action as a no-fly zone entails violence, air strikes, and deadly consequences, the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates being one of the first to recognize that a no-fly zone “begins with an attack on Libya.” Some international lawyers, among them Richard Falk, have asserted that a no-fly zone would be an act of war, urging the international community to kick its “habit” of intervention.
Meanwhile, members of the Transitional National Council of Libya, in a founding act, “request from the international community to fulfil [sic] its obligations to protect the Libyan people from any further genocide and crimes against humanity without any direct military intervention on Libya soil.” The Council at once claims explicitly that “it is the sole representative of all Libyans.” All Libyans request to be protected by the international community, we are told, without any foreign intervention on Libyan soil. But, it is added, Libyans would welcome a military intervention from the air, perhaps even from the sea.
Why the indecisiveness, some ask. Why is the international community watching as Libyans are slaughtered by forces loyal to Qaddafi? If there is no military intervention, they add, how will the bloodshed be stopped? The international community has a responsibility to protect Libyans, it is repeated, over and over, from “widespread crimes against humanity.” Others focus on the plight of non-citizen residents of Libya, in the millions, some targeted and attacked as black Africans. And the International Red Cross adds to the chorus: what we are witnessing in Libya is nothing but civil war.
What is going on? And why the careful parlance? In matters of life and death, as we should know, words have a propensity to kill. How one names the situation is critical, implying specific jurisdictions, distinct responsibilities, and different licenses to kill. When “the international community” intervenes militarily in Libya under a cosmopolitan obligation to protect Libyans as humans, it will be killing Libyans and others. And if the Interim Transitional National Council is killing Libyans and others, it is also claiming to be protecting Libyans. This is the paradox we are not told of. Such national acts of sovereignty, recognized by the French state or not, claim a license to kill. And cosmopolitan acts of sovereignty, recognized by “the international community” or not, kill in the name of humanity — from the air, soil, or sea. This is the reason one must pause, think, and evaluate “the situation” very carefully.
But for some, the answers are clear. To the editors of the Christian Science Monitor, an international daily based in the United States, for instance, “the killings in Libya have been atrocious enough to provide moral clarity.” Titling their editorial, “The World’s Responsibility to Protect Libyans,” the editors conclude forcefully: “if ever a ‘responsibility to protect’ was made clear, it is now in Libya.” The world has the responsibility to protect Libyans from the “excessive use of force” by their government, while “the world must also act against crimes against humanity,” they claim. Having specified the accorded task of “break[ing] a state’s sovereignty,” and having named the actor charged with this responsibility as the world, however, the editors quickly proscribe the task to “the UN or NATO,” as if they were shorthand for the world. And yet, the moral clarity of the cosmopolitan plea precludes the possibility of posing the question: Why? Why this responsibility, why upon the UN or NATO, why upon “the world,” why now, why in Libya, and not, say, not in Gaza?
The Responsibility to Protect, also known as R2P, was published in December 2001 as a report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The Commission was officially constituted and partly financed by the Canadian government, which commissioned twelve “experts,” including Michael Ignatieff (the former Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University and current leader of the Liberal Party of Canada), as well as Gareth Evans (the former Australian Foreign Minister and former president of the International Crisis Group). The Commission’s aim was to draw an authoritative framework specifying the principles and standards of “external military intervention for human protection purposes.” Changing the language of a global debate, the R2P reformulated military intervention as an obligation, in conscious contradistinction to a right of intervention. What is remarkable about this formulation is its skillful mobilization of the distinction between a right and an obligation, and its partisan resolve to decide the rivalry between the two conceptions of intervention in favor of the latter. Notably, while a right may or may not be exercised, the character of an obligation is different: it embodies a moral imperative to act, in this case, to perform the function of “protection,” if necessary with violence.
But who is the addressee, the subject of this obligation? And what is the foundation, if any, of the moral imperative underpinning the responsibility to protect? Writing for the Guardian on Libya and “the case for liberal intervention,” Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian and recipient of the George Orwell Prize, reminds his readers that “a decade ago an independent [sic] commission that elaborated on the idea of ‘the responsibility to protect’ spelled out six criteria for deciding whether military action is justified.” Ash then specifies the six criteria — right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects — according to which, he claims, the military enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya would not be justified.
Yet the very application of the R2P criteria to decide a specific case presumes that an earlier question, also formulated by Ash, has already received a positive answer: “do we not have some responsibility to protect the people who have risen against [Qaddafi]?” True, it is not absolutely clear to whom Ash refers to with the pronoun “we” in the former sentence, or the following: “We should prepare contingency plans. But we have not yet exhausted all other avenues, including trying to pry Gaddafi’s cronies away from him by fair means and foul.” But he is more suggestive when concluding that “any form of armed intervention by the West . . . would spoil the greatest pristine glory of these events, which is that they are all about brave men and women liberating themselves.” In other words, “we” may be the West, but “they” are something else, and “we” have a responsibility to protect “them.” (Note that in such pronouncements, the ambiguity of the actor — whether named the civilized world, the West, the international community, or simply the world — obligated by a responsibility to protect facilitates this obligation’s capacity to recruit potentially responsible subjects for the task.)
As for the nature of the moral imperative presumed by the responsibility to protect, and more specifically, by the criteria for deciding whether a case falls under such an obligation, Ash affirms that R2P’s criteria are “essentially a modernized version of centuries-old Catholic standards for ‘just war.’” It is important to reflect on this finding — affirmed by many other scholars and practitioners — because it makes explicit the politico-theological foundations of a cosmopolitan morality which takes “life,” for instance, especially civil-human-life, to be a sacred possession, or an “inalienable” right demanding protection. Another reason for reflecting on “essentially theological” standards is that the apparent secularity (and hence “modernity”) of the paradigms of universal justice, law, and order proposed for governing, administering, and defending “humanity” should be questioned.
Notably, Talal Asad has addressed this problem. Asad has not merely traced the genealogy of contemporary humanitarian law back to medieval Christian theology and its “just war” principles of necessity and proportionality. He has also commented at length, for example, on how the specific significance attributed to concepts such as intention, penance and remorse in the context of an evolving medieval Christian theology can today find expression in the regretful apologies expressed by secular liberals for the unnecessary and disproportionate killings of “innocents” in war. Within the framework of this theology, as well as contemporary humanitarian law (it is worth repeating), certain killings of persons are endorsed in principle, as necessary and proportionate to the ends pursued by a just or legal war. Operating within this very humanitarian logic, the Responsibility to Protect, as language, doctrine, and practice, is a recent and particularly powerful example of what Asad calls “the etiquette of death dealing.”
If I have raised the theological dimensions of cosmopolitan theory and practice as a question, this is not only to observe how the editors of the Christian Science Monitor may be cosmopolitans as Christians, or to note, along with the historian Thomas Mastnak, that medieval crusaders, too, may have been “true cosmopolitans.” I raise the question of theology to also emphasize how, at least since the sixteenth-century colonization of the Americas, “religion” has been integral to the cultural logic through which the modern international legal order has been constituted, and international relations practiced. In fact, scholars have meticulously revealed how Euro-Christian colonialism, and the theological, as well as racial, cultural, moral, and political supremacisms that accompanied colonial practices, are the actual foundation of contemporary international law. Without such a historical perspective, it is difficult to appreciate fully the significance of recent advances and retreats in the battlefield of cosmopolitics — where the sovereignty of Libya is once again contested.
We may wish to remember, for example, that the problem of “who was sovereign and why” solidified in the violent interaction among imperial states and the “societies” they conquered, colonized, and attempted to civilize. After decolonization, this problem has continued to persist in the “international relations” of a world legally ordered through apparently equal and equally-sovereign nation-states, in the image of the United Nations General Assembly, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.
And tomorrow, how will it be determined that Libya is non-sovereign in the first place? Who will determine the sovereign status of Libya or recognize, along with France, the sovereign status of the Interim Transitional National Council which, in its own words, “held its first meeting on Saturday 5th of March 2011, in the city of Benghazi, the temporary location, till the liberation of Tripoli the Capital City and the permanent location of the Council”? Who will decide and adjudicate this declaration of independence? How and why?
In a syndicated article entitled “The Responsibility to Protect Libyans,” reproduced by the Wall Street Journal, a principal author of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, Gareth Evans, the co-chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, declares in the first sentence: “Sovereignty is not a license to kill.” On the contrary, sovereignty, whether exercised in the name of humanity or that of the nation, is a bloody license to kill. From death-row prisoners to soldiers, from police officers to NATO commanders, a multitude can further testify to the very legality of this license. Which is, of course, no reason to accept it.
If “the international community” intervenes militarily in Libya under a cosmopolitan obligation to protect Libyans as humans, it will be killing Libyans and others. And if the Interim Transitional National Council is killing Libyans and others, it is also claiming to be protecting Libyans. This is one reason, only one reason among others, why we — the author and the readers — can decide to pause, to evaluate the situation and judge, judge very carefully.