October 31, 2023

‘Responsibility To Protect’ in Libya: A Post–colonial and Feminist Analysis

R2P blog image

Photo: Libya celebrates one-year anniversary of anti-Gaddafi uprising. Copyright UN Photo/Iason Foounten

Written by: Sol Rodriguez

The UN intervention in Libya marked a turning point in history, and the future of R2P. Stated by the outcome of the World Summit in 2005, R2P recognizes that a state can lose its sovereignty in the case of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. If any of these crimes occur and the state fails to act, the International Community has the legitimacy to intervene. Under Pillar 3 of R2P, it can be through peaceful and diplomatic strategies, or through coercive and military options.

While R2P has acquired many supporters due to its humanitarian message, its military operation in Libya increased the scepticism surrounding its objectives and consequences. In fact, Libya is now used as a hard proof confirming old suspicious that R2P can be abused for political purposes.

The Arab Spring and the Reaction by the International Community

The conflict in Libya, which took place in 2011, is contextualized within the “Arab Spring”, a movement understood as a pro-democracy movement where civilians were protesting against autocratic governments while demanding greater freedom and democracy.

In Libya, demonstrations against the country’s leader Gaddafi rapidly turned violent and the UNSC reminded the leader of his duty to protect his population. Violence escalated, and Gaddafi was accused of human rights violations. Resolution 1970 was accepted unanimously on February 2011 but given the lack of success, Resolution 1973 was adopted on March, giving authorization to take all necessary measures to protect the population, including military force. While no country voted against it, countries including China, Russia and Germany voted with abstention.

A Postcolonial and Feminist Critique of R2P

It is argued that R2P seems to advocate for Western values, reinforcing a binary and unequal relationship between the West and the rest (Other). Western values are considered universal and wanted by everyone. The speeches of the West talked about “duty” and “peace”. Intervention is perceived as moral obligation, as cultural correctness. Nonetheless, it is argued that R2P languages hides a paternalistic discourse in which Western societies have the moral responsibility to civilize the “Other”.

Furthermore, R2P reproduces underlying colonial stereotypes. It rests on a “self VS other” dichotomy, constructing the identity of the West as heroic, the guarantors of universal values, and of the “Other” as either a victim or as an uncivilized barbarian. The conflict in Libya was explained in simplified terms based on racial stereotypes. Gaddafi and his loyalists were criminals VS the (white) benevolent saviours in the quest for helping the victims and fighting the (brown) perpetrators.

Moreover, the language employed in R2P reproduces gender stereotypes. It views women in essentialist terms, portraying them either as victims or as ideal peacebuilders. Libyan women were described as targets of Gaddafi's brutality that had to be rescue. Whereas they played a key role sparking the revolution and in the overthrow of Gaddafi's regime, in the international sphere they were stripped of their agency and their performance was barely acknowledged. Following that women are among the vulnerable population, the likelihood of deployment of military force is more likely to be used to protect them.[1]

Additionally, R2P language can be argued to entail a marginalization effect on other collectives since women are prioritized.[2] Other collectives might be overviewed since they are considered “vulnerable”.

Discourse Strategies Used to Justify a Military Response

- Oversimplified conflict: Libyans were described as all together against a dictator. The audience pictures Libyans as united country whose only desire is to have rights. Although the opposition shared the goal to remove Gaddafi from power, the group of the rebels consisted of different groups seeking influence over the future of the country.

- The construction of the threat: the International Community used the language of immediateness and demonised Gaddafi to justify the use of force, a measure that in “normal” situations is not approved. Regional support and a legal basis were required too, so that intervention was not seen as a unilateral move by the West.

- Rape-as-a-weapon narrative: The claim of systematic sexual violence by Gaddafi´s with a political aim rests mainly on three rather thin and disputatious stories: Eman al-Obeidi´s story, Viagra was said to be distributed, and a Libyan psychologist announced that she identified over 200 victims of rape. Although there were doubts about the allegations and investigations were still in place, this did not stop the International Community to use the rape-as-a-tool narrative to demand a military operation. After the intervention, the ICC published a report in which they classified the sexual claims as speculative. Rather than being used as a tool with a political objective, rape occurred due to the lack of control and security at the time and was committed by all parties.


Intervention in Libya was a moral imperative that seemed to align with the security interests of the West. That is, although intervention was justified in humanitarian terms, critics have argued that a regime change was the ultimate goal pursued. Now, a decade after R2P implementation, the country is ruled by conflict and chaos. Not only does establishing a stable democracy seem to be impossible due to disputes and disagreements between rival factions after Gaddafi´s death, but also, they are currently facing the flood caused by Storm Daniel. The head of the World Meteorological Organization stated that the impact of such storm was much greater given the divided country.

Author Bio:

Sol Rodriguez is an undergraduate student in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Warwick. This blog is part of the URSS scheme run by Warwick. The latter sponsors students to conduct their own research project working with an academic during the summer.

[1] Carpenter.R 2012. Innocent Women and Children: Gender, Norms, and the Protection of Civilians. Burlington, VT: Ashgate; Enloe, C. 2000. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women´s Lives Berkeley: University of California Press

[2] Kolmasova, S. and Krulisova, K. 2019. Legitimizing Military Action through ‘Rape-as-a-Weapon’ Discourse in Libya: Critical Feminist Analysis, Politics & Gender. Cambridge University Press, 15(1), pp. 130–150. doi: 10.1017/S1743923X18000326.

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