All My Little Words

Libya, Qaddafi and the End of Humanitarian Intervention

Posted in Foreign Policy, Politics by nickchristian on October 23, 2011

In the wake of Qaddafi’s violent demise there has been much handwringing over the decision of the major media outlets to publish on their front pages, either online or in print, the images graphically confirming it. The first of these subjects is simply not our concern while the second is a relatively insignificant point of media responsibility, societal values and what constitutes “news”. Neither is, in my opinion, worthy of the attention it’s been given.

We cannot account, or take responsibility, for the actions of a ragtag militia who, in their jubilant discovery, brought a violent end to an era of despotism. That Qaddafi should not have been executed is my view on the subject but irrelevant, for I never suffered under his tyrannical rule and nor was I present at his death, and therefore able to meaningfully appreciate the circumstances surrounding it. It cannot be undone.

My concern, and where I feel more attention should be focussed, is with the role of NATO forces in the death of the dictatorship. While Western leaders have been keen to credit the Libyan rebels with the overthrow of the regime there can be no doubt that that NATO planes, having carried out more than 30,000 sorties since UN Resolution 1973 was passed, played a significant role, beyond its original mandate.

Article 4 of UN Resolution 1973

Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi,”

The explicit purpose of UN Resolution 1973 was therefore to prevent a massacre of the people of Benghazi, as Qaddafi appeared to be threatening; while several international figures had decried the Libyan government as illegitimate nowhere in the resolution is there mention of a secondary aim of regime change, or even of assisting the rebels in their ultimate goal of its overthrow. Whether or not the key instigators and authors of the resolution meant for the mission to mutate in such a way we do not know, but what we do know is that had they included such language in the document, the Resolution could not have passed the Security Council vote.

Even as it was, the resolution which authorized NATO action in Libya only passed the Security Council with the slimmest of margins: while neither Russia nor China blocked its passage as they could have, neither explicitly supported it either. We must assume that concerns over mission creep had already been raised and allayed in order to achieve abstentions of Russia and China as well as Arab League support. These concerns would appear to have been justified as, only a few weeks into the mission, China criticised the NATO operation for overreach while Russia called for NATO to bring an “end to the indiscriminate use of force”. These calls went unheeded.

It has been suggested that, with the Libyan operation ostensibly a success, such interventions may be more likely to take place in the future. My view is that the manner in which the mission was extended, far beyond the parameters of the mandate outlined above, makes any future crises far less likely to be dealt with militarily, regardless of the extent to which the situation calls for force. As we’ve recently seen in Syria it doesn’t take much to turn an abstention into a veto.

Of course mission creep in Libya does not explain why we have seen no action against Assad in Syria. It has, however, made it easier to understand. If Western countries, in assisting a people under threat, cannot be trusted to wield their military power responsibly, then next time they will not be trusted to wield it at all. As significantly, if not moreso, support for engagement will be weaker.

Accusations that, by actively picking a winner in a civil dispute, Britain and chums engaged in behaviour that was paternalistic to the point of pseudo-colonial are, in my view, completely fair. Seven months ago I supported an intervention that was limited in scope but I did support it. Take me back seven months, today, and I wouldn’t.

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