Learning the lesson of Libya

By Jonathan Power

On Saturday Libya beat Ghana to win the African Nations Football Championship. A return to normalcy? To win a team must have a first class pitch and a non-stressed out team. Does this indicate that Libya, two and a half years after the fall of dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, is getting back on its feet?

Alas, the football win is out of the ordinary in Libyan life, made by a team that has found a way to the top by hard practice and severe self-discipline. The rest of Libya is not like that. Its government is wobbly, self-appointed militias still rule in many parts and the rule of law is ignored as often as it’s obeyed. An increasing number of its people yearn for the peace and order of the dictatorial Gaddafi regime where the economy grew, life was improving and even human rights were being more respected.

Inspired by the Arab Spring in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, Libyans, so the accepted Western narrative went, rose up in non-violent protests. Gaddafi responded by ordering the protesters to be shot and ordered his troops to fire indiscriminately into residential areas. The protesters turned violent and the civil war began.

In truth, many of the protesters from day one used arms and the government at first responded with only rubber bullets and water cannons. Western television reported that Gaddafi’s forces had used live ammunition, showing a video of this. The BBC the next day, almost alone among news organisations, admitted it had made a reporting mistake. The video had been “uploaded more than a year ago”.

Nonetheless the situation quickly deteriorated and those that chose non-violence were pushed aside. The rebel militias faced the troops head on. The rebels called for the outside world to intervene.

The UN Security Council was convened and agreed (Russia and China abstaining) that “all necessary means” be used to protect Libya’s civilians. But that was not what happened. France, Denmark and the UK with US back up went for the jugular and set about bombing the regime into submission. Gaddafi was killed.

Russia felt betrayed. This was not what it had accepted and it has made it shy of voting for “humanitarian intervention” in Syria and, doubtless, future hot spots. As Professor Alan Kuperman writes in the current issue of Harvard University’s “International Security”, “If NATO had prioritised the protection of civilians it would have enforced a non-fly zone, bombed forces that were threatening civilians and attempted to forge a cease-fire. Instead NATO took actions that were unnecessary or inconsistent with protecting civilians but which fostered regime change”. The New York Times reported that NATO planes even attacked those Libyan forces which were in retreat.

Thanks to sloppy and sensational reporting and NATO disinformation we were never given the true picture. Rather we were reminded of the terrorism Gaddafi initiated more than three decades earlier and which he had renounced many years ago.

As a result of NATO intervention, Libya’s war lasted 36 weeks rather than ending in 6 weeks as NATO governments had at first estimated. Around 5,000 civilians and rebels were killed.

Gaddafi committed no blood baths (unlike Assad in Syria today where the number of deaths has been around 100,000). By and large civilians were not targeted, as in Syria and Rwanda.

By making it clear that they were intent on regime change NATO perversely encouraged the regime to fight to the bitter end, thus escalating and prolonging the war. Gaddafi’s offer of a cease-fire and negotiations, only two weeks into the conflict, was ignored.

The only apparent benefit to Libyans is that they have been able to vote in democratic elections. But the unstable government has little authority in a country where the militias have grown big, thanks to the unnecessary length of the war. Kuperman argues that human rights abuses are considerably worse than in the decade preceding the war. NATO intervention also triggered a series of events that spilled over into neighbouring Mali which then experienced its own civil war.

The NATO action has also probably upped the violence of the opposition forces in Syria which have hoped that their civil war would provoke a similar NATO intervention. It nearly did.

Future rebels in other countries may think the same. It is giving the concept of “humanitarian intervention” a bad name. Over the years there have been many useful and productive humanitarian interventions- as by the UN in Congo today. They have always been carried out with the acquiescence of the local government.

In theory it was a good idea in 2005 to pass a resolution in the UN, legalising the concept of “ The Right to Protect”, authorising intervention in grave humanitarian situations without a government’s permission. But this did not mean doing it the Libyan way. This has given the whole notion a bad smell which will take some time to dissipate.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2014

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