In March of 2011 and just hours before the United Nations Security Council vote, Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi promised citizens of Benghazi—his own countrymen—that he was “coming tonight” and that would show them “no mercy and no pity.” Gaddafi’s brazen statement telegraphed an impending attack with a high possibility massive civilian casualties.
In the Security Council immediately following Gaddafi’s threats, Russia and China—two permanent members with noted authoritarian governments themselves—abstained from voting on resolution 1973, which authorized “all necessary measures to protect civilians… including Benghazi.” (Germany, Brazil, and India, then-rotating members of the Security Council, abstained as well for their own reasons.)
In hindsight, Russia seems to have regretted its abstention. In January 2012, speaking about the growing civil war in Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Australian TV that “the international community unfortunately did take sides in Libya and we would never allow the Security Council to authorize anything similar to what happened in Libya” in Syria.
That seems odd, because “what happened in Libya” was, on balance, a good thing: A sustained NATO air campaign unquestionably protected many more innocent civilians than it harmed and weakened Gaddafi’s forces en route to his downfall. What’s more, the Libya operation served as validation for those supporting the “responsibility to protect,” a 2006 Security Council mandate that called on parties involved in armed conflict to bear primary responsibility to protect civilians, approved by a unanimous 15-0 vote.
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