Seven months after the UN Security Council authorised the use of force in Libya, Muammar Qadhafi is dead. As for the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) that triggered the military action to protect civilians, how far has it been advanced by the liberation of Libya?

R2P is a principle that legitimates coercive measures, as a last resort, to protect peoples at risk from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The power of R2P is such that it shaped the terms of the diplomatic debate during the key Security Council discussions in mid-March. Resolution 1973 gave effect to the military action to protect civilians and entire cities that were under threat of imminent of annihilation from Qadhafi’s military.

When it became obvious that the then Libyan Government was targeting civilians rather than protecting them, the Australian Government used its diplomatic leverage to ensure the UN Security Council and other key regional bodies exercised their collective responsibility to safeguard Libyan civilians. With no clear national interests at stake and no hard power to reinforce its diplomatic message, Australia nevertheless mobilised significant normative power, reserves of which had been built up over many years of R2P activism.

The Libya case shows that state-based advocacy for R2P makes a difference. If we doubt that making ‘noise’ matters, consider the views of Anthony Lake, national security advisor to President Clinton during the Rwandan genocide: in Lake’s words, ‘it was seen as impossible to contemplate American intervention, because nobody was for it’.

Australia adopted a pro-intervention policy that was, in the words of one official, ‘early, clear, and consistent’. The joint press release by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard on the death of Qadhafi refers to Australia’s role as one of the first countries to support a no-fly zone. Australia engaged in extensive diplomacy advocating the authorisation of a no-fly zone with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Foreign Affairs Minister Rudd made a strong statement in the Human Rights Council calling on states to uphold their responsibility to protect in Libya.

The combined effect of the resolution agreed to by the League of Arab States, and the strong position taken by Australia and others, helped to create conditions where coercion was considered a serious option. Having R2P front and centre in early the debates over Libya made the ‘business as usual’ justification for doing nothing harder to advance.

We did not have to wait long to see a very different kind of a response to gross human rights violations. The Assad regime in Syria has slaughtered over 3000 civilians, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Earlier this month, both China and Russia vetoed a condemnatory resolution at a time when the Syrian army’s use of force was escalating. Russian and Chinese caution is an ever-present possibility, particularly when there are reasonable doubts – as there are in the Syrian case – about what exactly can be achieved if timely and decisive military action was called for.

It is unlikely Libya will remain an exceptional case for long. Custom and precedent are powerful forces in the international legal order. In the meantime, there is a job of work to be done by R2P advocates to reassure sceptics that doubts about legitimacy can be addressed through clearer operational guidelines about how humanitarian interventions are to be conducted. It is not enough for the Security Council simply to authorise intervention; it has to elaborate mechanisms by which it exercises greater control over the implementation of its resolutions.

This post is an edited extract from Dunne and Gifkins’ article, ‘Libya and the State of Intervention, which has been made freely available by the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

Tim Dunne is Professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland, and Director of Research, Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. His plural approach to theory is guided by what is most productive in terms of understanding the role that rules, norms and institutions play in shaping the behaviour of international actors.

Jess Gifkins is a researcher with the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. Her thesis is on drafting and negotiations of UN Security Council resolutions in response to the crisis in Darfur.