42 years after the bloodless coup d’état which placed Colonel Gaddafi and his government officials firmly in power in Libya and saw decades of Libyan oppression, Libyans recently decided to protest and were influenced by neighbouring states’ anti-government protests. These have led to unforeseen and unpredictable consequences which have catapulted the Middle East, and simultaneously western state behaviour, or misbehaviour, into the world affairs’ spotlight.
The peaceful protests which began on February 15th led to huge bloodshed – 140 people were killed in 5 days according to Human Rights Watch – resulting from Gaddafi advocating to forcefully silence them. The use of tanks and heavy weaponry and the resulting death toll gave rise to further outrage from the Libyan population. The Interim Transitional National Council, created on the 27th of February by anti-Gaddafi rebels and led by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, claims to act as the ‘political face of the Libyan revolution.’
Recalling inadequate responses to recent cases of bloodshed and widespread human rights abuses (such as the 1994 Rwanda genocide), the international community made the unified decision to take steps towards preventing Gaddafi’s forces from killing innocent civilians.
At least that is what officials from key states such as the United Kingdom (UK), the United States of America (USA) and France would have us believe. However, this intervention has been extremely controversial. Moreover, it is interesting to note that the US citizens who support the intervention are also those who had elected Barack Obama partly because of his opposition to the Iraq war.
Moreover, the Libya Conference, on the 29th March, whilst meaning to convene the international community to make decisions about the situation, resulted in a gross underrepresentation of Arab League countries. Key Arab states Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia did not show up at the conference, suggesting that the ‘unified’ international community is in fact led by ‘heavyweight’ states acting not only to prevent a humanitarian crisis but critically in their own interest.
The fact that Eastern Libya houses what the UK and USA classify as a ‘hot spot’ for Al Qaeda recruits – many of whom have fought in Iraq against UK and USA troops – could be an underlying motive to encourage regime change in the country, with the hope that a new government would work with western states to prevent such occurrences.
Therefore, a cynic would argue that this reason, coupled with the Lockerbie bombing – which the Gaddafi government is alleged to have agreed to – explain NATO’s keenness to intervene; Much more than a will to aid the Libyan people (though regime change will probably improve local human rights standards).
Why has NATO not jumped to the aid of the Yemenis, the day 52 were recently shot dead for similar peaceful anti-government protests? Arguably, it is this inconsistency in western foreign policy towards the Middle East that will create anger amongst Arab League states as well as citizens in western states, who advocate intervention that will save people from callous slaughter – not selfish motives.
Even if NATO were intervening solely to prevent a Libyan genocide, it is still a very difficult act to succeed in, as there is a fine line between defending civilians subjected to violence on the one hand, and aiding a side of a civil war on the other. Indeed, are we certain that the rebels will be any better than the current Libyan government? The answer, unfortunately, is that we cannot know.
Recently, USA, French and UK officials attempted to find a loophole that would allow for the rebels to be armed by outside powers; However the 1973 UN resolution includes an arms embargo on Libya – meaning that no weapons are allowed out of or into the country for the foreseeable future.
This attempt demonstrates another issue with the Libyan intervention: the possibility for a ‘heavyweight’ state to manipulate the UN security resolution regarding Libya to its own interests, as one could see with William Hague’s terminology when he referred to it. Whilst accepting that arming the opposition would be unlawful, he simultaneously outlined how easy manipulation of the resolution could be: ‘Our reading of the UN resolution means the embargo applies to the whole of Libya; an exception might be made when giving weapons to people with the sole aim of defending themselves under certain circumstances in a limited way…But it poses many moral and legal questions.’ The danger of wrongly interpreting the UN resolution is a grave one.
The NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently decided that arming the rebels would be a step too far, because it would prove unlawful under the scrutiny of international lawyers. Without this positive decision, western states would probably have eventually had to hold their heads through another international crime tribunal, as happened with Iraq.
Therefore, is the intervention justifiable? The answer seems to depend on who the ultimate decision maker will be. If Rasmussen continues to think level-headedly throughout, the likelihood is that NATO will have helped many innocent people survive and overcome a dictatorship, and facilitate the transition to a democratic Libya.
However, the USA, France and UK must keep their interests in check and maintain a completely neutral status in the conflict if this is to happen. Further decisions that will shape either the success or the failure of this intervention will be the strategic ones made over the next few weeks.
Crucial questions still remain: when will NATO withdraw from Libya? Will a regime change actually help Libya? Would Gaddafi’s government even fall without the help of outside forces? If the latter is impossible, will NATO decide to take the law in its hands and arm Gaddafi’s opposition? The answers to these questions will determine not only if the intervention in Libya is justified, but also how the uprising will be viewed by people in years to come.