Libya: Here we go again

John Hilary questions Nato’s claims of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya

June 18, 2011
7 min read


John HilaryJohn Hilary is executive director of War on Want.

Military planners are not big on irony. The bombing of Libya by US, UK and French aircraft commenced on 19 March 2011, eight years to the day since the aerial bombardment that launched the invasion of Iraq. Such a coincidence should have set the generals’ alarm bells ringing. Not only were they embarking on yet another war against an oil-rich, dictator-led Arab country, but they were doing so on exactly the same date as the last one.

Nato’s engagement in Libya ran into the desert sand faster than the invasion of Iraq ever did. Support for the bombing started to unravel within days of the UN security council vote authorising ‘all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack’. The secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, whose support had been crucial in persuading China and Russia not to veto allied action against Libya, recanted within just 24 hours of the commencement of hostilities. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa issued a statement denouncing the military action and backing the African Union proposal for a political solution.

International concern mounted still further as Nato leaders swiftly moved beyond the UN mandate of protecting civilians to openly advocating regime change. The press article by Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy carried by the Times, Washington Post and Le Figaro on 15 April stated explicitly that Gaddafi ‘must go and go for good’, and pledged that their forces would continue operations until his removal. The three leaders appeared supremely indifferent to the fact that military intervention to bring about regime change is against international law.

Further contravention of the UN mandate of protecting civilians came with the decision to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) for bombing raids on areas held by pro-Gaddafi forces. The British media continue to parrot the official line that drones offer the possibility of targeting military installations more accurately – ‘minimising the risk of civilian casualties’, according to the BBC’s formulation. The reality could not be more different. The use of drones by the UK and US in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan has shown how wildly inaccurate they are, with an average of 10 civilians killed in ‘collateral damage’ for every militant targeted. The UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, has warned that the use of such indiscriminate weapons may well be a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.

David Cameron’s sudden concern for the safety of Libyan civilians rings particularly hollow, given that he had authorised the sale of sniper rifles, assault rifles, machine guns and crowd control ammunition to Gaddafi during the second half of 2010. Singling out Libya for bombardment while supporting equally despotic regimes elsewhere is further evidence of double standards. The Arab League’s suggestion that the UN security council should authorise a parallel no-fly zone over Gaza is a fair one, but should in no way detract attention from the serious problems of legitimacy faced by many members of the League in their own countries.

Responsibility to protect

The Nato assault on Libya reveals serious problems with the principle of humanitarian intervention itself. Following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which half a million Tutsi were massacred while the international community looked on, the call for outside intervention to protect civilian populations from such atrocities grew more and more vocal. The subsequent crises in Bosnia, Kosovo and Darfur added further impetus to the conviction that ‘something must be done’.

The principle of humanitarian intervention was given normative expression in 2001 as the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilian populations from mass atrocities, or R2P for short. This responsibility was adopted by the UN’s 2005 world summit, which committed the international community to take collective action to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity if and when peaceful means to prevent such crimes prove inadequate. The summit gave ultimate power to approve any such use of force to the security council, in keeping with chapter VII of the UN Charter.

It should be noted that neither the invasion of Afghanistan nor the Iraq war had been cast as instances of humanitarian intervention. In the case of Afghanistan, US and UK representatives argued to the security council – which had given no mandate for military action – that their operations were acts of self-defence under the UN Charter in response to the attacks of 9/11. The pretext given for the Iraq war was, infamously, Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair’s retrospective attempts to justify the invasion on humanitarian grounds convinced nobody.

In both instances, of course, the true causes of war ran deeper. The geopolitical importance of Afghanistan in relation to Iran and the resource-rich countries of central Asia had already singled it out as a potential target even before 2001; the discovery of major mineral deposits and the need for a trans-Afghan pipeline to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India added further cause. In Iraq’s case, as Greg Muttitt’s new book Fuel on the Fire conclusively demonstrates, the primary strategic goals of the invasion were to maintain a low and stable oil price and to secure access for western companies to the country’s giant oil fields.

Self-interested intervention

Libya boasts the largest proven oil reserves of any country in Africa, as well as significant reserves of natural gas. When BP returned to the country in 2007 through an exploration and production agreement worth an initial $900 million, chief executive Tony Hayward called it ‘BP’s single biggest exploration commitment’. Shell had already signed its own $200 million gas exploration deal when sanctions on Libya were lifted in 2004, gaining rights to explore and develop five areas in the Sirte basin and to upgrade a liquefied natural gas plant on the Mediterranean coast. No fewer than 35 foreign oil and gas companies are active in Libya, including several national oil companies from Nato member states.

It is childish to suggest that Nato’s intervention in Libya was undertaken without reference to the country’s natural resources. Nato member states are not disinterested observers but key players with strategic investments in Libya and across the wider Arab world. The fact that the protagonists have been able to cloak their actions in terms of humanitarian intervention does nothing to disguise the underlying agenda of securing key supplies of oil and gas.

This points to the central problem with the ‘responsibility to protect’, namely that the decision to intervene will always be taken according to the political and strategic interests of those prepared to commit their armed forces. Even those instances that are cited as the most positive military interventions of recent history – such as India’s intervention in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1971, or Vietnam’s 1978 invasion of Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge – had clear political motivations. To pretend that the UN security council represents a safety mechanism ‘above’ such considerations is disingenuous. Indeed, Nato forces now treat the security council as no more than a convenient fig leaf for their most aggressive ambitions.

British public opinion is alive to the hypocrisy. Within a few weeks of the start of hostilities, polls showed even less support for British intervention in Libya than for the Iraq war at the same time in 2003. Britain’s two largest trade unions, Unite and Unison, both issued statements in April calling for a cessation of military action. Unite’s statement noted that, despite the security council mandate, Nato’s intervention risked escalating the violence and causing further civilian casualties while doing nothing to end hostilities on the ground.

Advocates of humanitarian intervention need to address these realities head on. The responsibility to protect civilians from war crimes or other atrocities has degenerated into a convenient excuse for selected acts of aggression, while other equally pressing human rights crises go untouched. Nato is not a benign force for peace in the world but a coalition whose leaders take military action for their own political and strategic ends. We must challenge such imperialism, not legitimise it.


John HilaryJohn Hilary is executive director of War on Want.


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