Libya: Here we go again

John Hilary questions Nato’s claims of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya
June 2011



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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Ralph Parlour 29 June 2011, 13.59

yawn.. typical, could have been written by anyone. Oil explains everything does it? Why didn’t we invade Sudan then under the pretext of Humanitarian Intervention, or Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia? lets just leave the dictator in power and let him kill his people indiscriminately. The problem with your theory is that you can’t prove it, when we invade a resource rich nation you say its for oil, you forget when there are no resources like Kosovo or Siera Leone. You are having your cake and eating it, the world is more nuanced than you seem to be able to understand.


Ralph Parlour 29 June 2011, 14.14

Just remember something else, you should try to develop your basic marxist understanding of how the world works. Not everything that is bad is caused by greedy capitalists and not everything that the west does is in support of said capitalists. Your analysis is very shallow and basic.


Jamie 30 June 2011, 20.45

I completely agree with your statement about the world leaders who take military action for their own political and strategic ends. There are so many interests involved in this war that they will hardly be able to bring it to a halt. And I also think the next year’s presidential elections in some of the most powerful countries will be a good reason to prolong the Libyan conflict.


Will Podmore 7 July 2011, 14.20

Britain’s brutally aggressive adventure in Libya is to be utterly condemned.

Claiming falsely to protect civilians, British military jets are raining munitions from the sky on to Tripoli and other Libyan cities in a ‘shock and awe’ assault, acting on behalf of one side in a civil war, trying to assassinate the head of state of a sovereign country and to teach a lesson to Libyans who dare to support their independence in the face of imperialist intentions.

The British action is both shameful and cowardly. British troops are not to be risked, yet the Libyan people die in intensive bombing raids. In spite of a deliberately vague UN resolution, the action is illegal under international law. It is terrorism, inflicted by our government against a sovereign state which is no threat to us or its neighbours.

Britain acts as cheerleader to EU aggression, promoting the interests of the USA, which grabs its chance to seize control in awkward Middle East states which refuse to do its bidding. It is no coincidence that Libya has the highest standard of health, education and infrastructure in North Africa, that Gaddafi’s government is resistant to religious extremism, and that Libya has high-quality oil.

At a time when government tells us there is no money for civilised life at home, there is unlimited funding for the bombings – likely to top £1 billion by the end of the year. War is waged on us at home, and on the Libyan people in their country.

Where is the outcry? Why have workers not protested against this outrage? The voice of the trade unions is absent. Not surprisingly Labour MPs remain largely silent, except to complain that they aren’t being fully consulted on each escalation in the war which they support, and to assert that the civil not military budget must be used to fund it. In targeting Gaddafi as head of state, and killing his son and three young grandchildren, the British government is perpetrating state terrorism.

We should support the right of the Libyan people to determine themselves the affairs and government of their country, free from imperialist meddling. Whatever the future holds for Libya, it is not our business, nor that of the USA or the EU.


Nalliah Thayabharan 30 August 2011, 01.57

Since the 1950s Western imperialists have been in the business of regime change, assassinations and propping up client states to pillage the wealth of nations.
In 1953, England and America overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran. The coup was orchestrated by the intelligence apparatus of both countries after Mr. Mosaddegh nationalized the oil industry that was controlled by foreign interests. They set up Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (the shah of Iran) as a puppet authoritarian ruler who relied heavily on U.S. support.
In 1961, in the Congo, the CIA in collaboration with Belgium plotted the overthrow and subsequent murder of Patrice Lumumba—the country’s first post colonial prime minister—and installed Joseph Mobutu who served America for 32 years until his own demise at the hands of Clinton administration backed proxies, Rwanda and Uganda. The war caused the death of 6 million Congolese.
In 1966, Ghanaian independence leader Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was deposed by the CIA using ambitious enemies from within Ghana while Dr. Nkrumah was abroad in China on a peace mission attempting to mediate the Vietnam conflict.
Another gross example of U.S. meddling in the affairs of others was the September 11, 1973 ousting and assassination of the legitimate, elected government of President Salvador Allende of Chile. The coup d’état was organized by the Richard Nixon administration and Chilean military, ushering in the brutal dictator General Augusto Pinochet. These are only three examples out of many that can be named as examples of America’s pursuit of wicked foreign policy objectives.
A dictator becomes a “dictator” abhorred by his countrymen when he has overused his authority & power. These are good lessons for such leaders overstepping their power because they have come to equate power as their right. Such have been the countries that the West have been quick to ear mark & target for overthrowing these countries has been an easy effort to enter & dislodge these leaders. It is these very citizens who end up helping the overthrow take place, thus the non-requirement for stretched military equipment or personnel & the use of their own to minimize the casualties to their own countrymen. Collateral damage is what the West would call this. The countries where these leaders become “dictators” are often rich in natural resources which are one reason why they end up misusing the mandate given to them & becoming power hungry & their stooges & families end up devastating the country to which they are supposed to function as custodians.
It is the lack of answering this all important question that demands the West not to use these false clichés of “freedom from dictators” as an excuse. No sooner these “dictators” are overthrown the first thing the West ends up doing is to tap the natural resources, take over the economic hubs & privatize all channels that will supply their countries a steady flow of monetary returns & economic gain. All those who played an indirect role in aiding the West by providing support end up just turning their heads away. Therefore, when we all know Iraq was a mistake it is good to now ask whether Libya is going to be another – where the consequences to the future of the people of these countries were never part of the strategy or overall plan!
It is not hard to deduce that all of the efforts to overthrow Governments whatever type of governance has taken place in these countries are done so purely on the basis of acquiring the wealth of these nations. The calls for removal of these “despots” or “dictators” are mere slogans helped greatly by the mass media that provides the visuals of sensationalism to justify the overthrowing by painting the perfect picture of saviors against despots. It took no time for Mubarak of Egypt, the one time darling of the West to be portrayed with so much hatred by the media with no reminder to the public that he was an agent of the West. This is what is likely to happen to all other political leaders who think they will remain the darlings of the West & continue corrupt leadership.
In any democracy where people come to power on the strength of a vote it is natural that almost half the nation will not vote in favor of the overall winner. This is certainly not basis for any country to say that a leader is opposed & plans set to overthrow him.
The countries that are currently earmarked for regime change will know from diplomatic statements where their countries are heading for & this alone should suffice to ensure the country is set in order & issues that are likely to be used as excuses are properly taken care of. Corruption being one excuse is a perfect area to ensure that politicians, their stooges & the corrupt public service immediately function as they should & not as they want to run for the repercussions are far more dangerous in the present context.
If any country should be saved by the West it should be Palestinians suffering in Gaza for years as a result of Israeli. What does the US do instead – it vetoes Resolutions brought against Israel in the UN.
– Nalliah Thayabharan



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