Selective Humanitarian Intervention in the Arab Spring is Corrosive to the Universality of Human Rights


The concept of humanitarian intervention is slowly evolving into the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) doctrine.[1] Reaffirmed by Security Council Resolution 1894 and UN General Assembly Resolution 60/1, R2P shifts the primary obligation of monitoring and upholding human rights from the international community as a whole to the individual states.[2] Should they fail, the international community then assumes the responsibility to intervene diplomatically, economically, or militarily (as a last resort) to maintain those rights.[3] R2P revolutionises the conceptualization of state sovereignty as a duty of a state towards its citizens rather than a right over them.[4] It also emphasises the universality of human rights, as it ‘implies above all else a responsibility to react to [all] situations of compelling need for human protection,’[5] irrespective of the country or government regime.[6]


R2P was put to the test in the Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave that hit the Middle East beginning in December of 2010. This paper argues that the selective enforcement of R2P throughout the course of the Arab Spring undermined the universality of human rights and implicitly allowed for certain abuses to continue. Selective intervention ultimately hinged upon state interests rather than the protection of the people, and allowed the regimes threatened by the Arab Spring to continue to forcibly repress dissidents within their countries.


Infringement of Universality of Human Rights

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’[7] It is widely accepted that these rights are innate to being human, and that they must be upheld equally without discrimination. Extending this notion to R2P, it implies that the international community has an obligation to respond and to react to all severe human rights abuses under R2P’s mandate (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing) regardless of the political or social contexts.[8] This idea is affirmed in Security Council Resolution 1894, in which the Security Council pledges to ‘consistently condemn and call for the cessation of all acts of violence.’[9] It becomes evident that a uniform application of R2P is paramount to the universality of human rights.


However, the international community’s response to the Arab Spring reveals not only an inconsistent policy, but a blatantly self-serving and counter-productive strategy that deviates from the commitment towards the universality of human rights. Rather than approaching humanitarian intervention through an objective ‘checklist’ of the circumstances surrounding the crises, it was clearly the powerful nations that subjectively determined ‘whose human rights [justified] departure from the principle of non-intervention,’[10] so that some human lives end up carrying more weight than others. Double standards became apparent, as certain revolutions were endorsed and legitimized while others were ignored and left to suffer at the hands of their governments. For example, while the conflicts in Yemen and Libya erupted within a month of each other, the Security Council responded to the situation in Libya on the 26th of February, 2011 with Resolution 1970, whereas it stalled until the 21st of October to pass Resolution 2014 for Yemen.[11] Yet another example is Bahrain, where not only has the Security Council failed to address the situation, but has also watched passively as the Saudis endorse the criminal regime and facilitate its brutal response towards peaceful protesters.[12]


Perhaps the most contentious issue with the international community’s response to the Arab Spring is why the Security Council authorized military intervention in Libya but not in Syria, where government repression has been equally brutal and widespread.[13] The Security Council took action on Libya within weeks of the conflict’s inception, first by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and then by authorizing a military intervention via Resolution 1973, which eventually toppled the regime.[14] In contrast, a mere resolution of condemnation for the Syrian government’s crackdown has only just materialized from the Security Council over a year after the conflicts inception, despite the Human Rights Commissioner’s labelling of the regime’s actions as crimes against humanity and her recommendation for the situation to be referred to the ICC.[15] The Syrian regime has conveniently interpreted the international community’s silence as a green light to continue in its violent suppression of its population.[16] Clearly, humanitarian intervention in Libya, but the lack of it in Syria, runs counter to the principle of non-discrimination embedded within Article 2 of the UDHR, which mentions that ‘no distinction shall be made on the basis of the…country or territory to which a person belongs.’[17]


Ultimately, humanitarian intervention constituted a mere justification for the world powers to take advantage of the situation surrounding the Arab Spring and pursue their personal interests. The Libyan intervention was undoubtedly motivated by the availability of oil, which has already been distributed amongst the intervening powers.[18] With respect to the European Union, intervention in Libya was furthermore advantageous given its proximity to the continent.[19] Syria, on the other hand, does not possess the oil reserves that are present in Libya.[20] Its situation is further complicated by Russia’s specific interests with the current regime, as its veto (partially) hinges on the fact that its sole naval base in the Middle East is in Syria, and also that it remains a primary weapons provider to the regime.[21] Both the initial Russian and Chinese vetoes were also affected by their exclusion from any post-conflict economic benefits in Libya.[22] This pattern suggests a contradiction to the ICISS Report, which stresses that a condition of humanitarian intervention is that it be pursued with the right intention to rectify the human rights situation.[23] To say that human rights abuses will be addressed in rich countries but ignored in poorer, less strategic ones is a blatant contradiction of the universality of human rights.[24]

It is argued by Regehr that international reactions to the Arab Spring were not inconsistent,[25] but rather based upon important distinctions that characterized each revolution.[26] Not to belittle the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Bahraini governments’ repressive measures, it can be maintained that their conflicts did not pose a serious threat to international peace and security or a serious internal violation of humanitarian law. With respect to Yemen it became apparent that diplomatic means sufficed in ousting President Saleh; therefore, military intervention was not required.[27] This leaves Libya and Syria, whose situations seem so similar that one would assume that the international community’s response to both should be identical. However, critics argue otherwise, and point to fundamental differences that render a military intervention in Syria undesirable. First, Syria’s military is more highly maintained than Libya’s,[28] which increases the predicted costs and expectations of collateral damage.[29] The collapse of the Syrian regime would also carry implications for the stability of the region, as Syria continues to enjoy the support of key neighbours such as Iran and Hezbollah, whose reactions to a foreign military intervention could disrupt stability in the region and threaten the Arab-Israeli peace process.[30]

However, it remains the case that the contrasting responses to the Libyan and Syrian crises are unjustified despite their inherent differences. The follow-up to the outcome of the Millennium Summit affirms the ‘”responsibility to protect” of every state’ in situations of crimes against humanity, such as those manifested in both Libya in Syria.[31] Although R2P does not necessitate military intervention, it does advocate for concrete steps to be taken to address flagrant human rights violations. Therefore, while military intervention may not be ideal with respect to Syria, surely alternative diplomatic or non-military routes can be pursued more genuinely.[32] The double standard becomes blatantly obvious when it is noted that the Security Council passed Resolution 1970 condemning the situation in Libya less than ten days after the conflict had erupted, but has only just responded to the situation in Syria by passing Resolution 2042 condemning the violence and outlining a United Nations mission to supervise and monitor compliance with Annan’s six-point plan.[33]


This essay has demonstrated that inherent in selective humanitarian intervention is the contradiction that the human rights of some people are worth upholding more than others. While the international community was quick to react to the situation in Libya, it allowed for the conflicts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen to run their course, almost completely ignored government repression in Bahrain, and has been dealing inadequately with the situation in Syria. Even considering the different circumstances facing each country in the Arab Spring, the international community, under R2P, is responsible to take concrete measures to address the human rights abuses ensuing in each case. Ultimately, it comes down to the special interests of the deciding powers. Humanitarian intervention in Libya, with its natural resources and geographic location, constituted a prime setting to exercise R2P. Syria, on the other hand, considering Russian interests in the country and the delicate balance of power in the region, elicited a much slower response. Conflicts in the remaining countries (Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen), as western-backed dictatorships, were completely ignored and left to run their course. This double standard not only illustrates a game of politics, but also contradicts the customary nature of non-discrimination as set forth in Article 2 of the UDHR, as well as the universality of human rights.


[1] Allex Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect-Five Years On’ (2010) 24 Ethics & International Affairs 143 pg 143

[2] UNSC Res 1894 (1 November 2009) UN Doc S/RES/1894; UNGA Res 60/1 (24 October 2005) UN Doc A/RES/60/1

[3] Bellamy, ‘The Responsibility to Protect-Five Years On’ (n1) pg 43

[4] Carolin Thielking S. Neil Macfarlane, and Thomas G Weiss, ‘The Responsibility to Protect: Is Anyone Interested in Humanitarian Intervention?’ (2004) 25 Third World Quarterly 977 pg 978

[5] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, ‘The Responsibility to Protect: The Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’ (International Development Research Centre, 2001) <> accessed 3 March 2012

[6] Louise Arbour, ‘The responsibility to protect as a duty of care in international law and practice’ (2008) 34 Review of International Studies 445 pg 448

[7] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948) UN 27 A (III) (UDHR)

[8] D. Gierycz, ‘From humanitarian intervention (HI) to responsibility to protect (R2P)’ (2010) 29 Criminal Justice Ethics 110 pg 112

[9] UNSC Resolution 1894 (1 November 2009) (n2)

[10] S. Neil Macfarlane (n5) 979

[11] UNSC Res 1970 (26 February 2011) UN Doc S/RES/1970; UNSC Res 2014 (21 October 2011) UN Doc S/RES/2014

[12] Ernie Regehr, ‘Are R2P Interventions as Inconsistent as the Critics Charge?’ (Disarming Conflict, 2011) <> accessed 6 March 2012

[13] Maria Thomson, ‘Why Intervene in Libya,  but not Syria?’ (STAND, 2011) <> accessed 5 March 2012

[14] UNSC Res 1973 (17 March 2011) UN Doc S/RES/1973 para 4

[15] ‘Syria Should be Referred to ICC, UN’s Navi Pillay Says’ BBC News (13 December 2011) <> accessed 10 March 2012

[16] ‘The Year of Rebellion: The State of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa’ (Amnesty International Ltd, 2012) <> accessed 6 March 2012

[17] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (n8)

[18] Solene Jeanjean, ‘France’s Reaction to the Arab Spring’ (Bilgesam, 2011) <> accessed 8 March 2012

[19] Ibid

[20] Nicholas D Kristof, ‘Is It Better to Save No One?’ (New York Times, 2 April 2011) <> accessed 6 March 2012

[21] Mark Kersten, ‘No Surprise: Why Libya but not Syria’ (Justice in Conflict, 2011) <> accessed 5 March 2012

[22] Ibid

[23] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, “The Responsibility to Protect: The Report of the International Commission on International and State Sovereignty’ (n6) par 4.33

[24] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, “The Responsibility to Protect: The Report of the International Commission on International and State Sovereignty’ (n6)

[25] Regehr (n19)

[26] Thomson (n20)

[27] Ibid

[28] Thomson (n20)

[29] Heather and Bessma Momani Roff, ‘The Tactics of Intervention: Why Syria Will Never be Libya’ (Globe and Mail, 2011) <> accessed 5 March 2012

[30] Thomson (n20)

[31] UNGA ‘Follow-up to the Outcome of the Millennium Summit’ UNGA 59th session UN Doc A/59/565 (2004) para 201

[32] Thomson (n20)

[33] UNSC Res 1970 (26 February 2011) (n18); UNSC Res 2042 (14 April 2012) UN Doc S/RES/2042


Yasmine Nahlawi – University of Newcastle

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