Libya: two cheers for intervention
Military action in the Middle EastIvor Roberts
- 26 March 2011
UN-sanctioned military force to protect the Libyan people from the murderous excesses of its ‘mad dog’ dictator has widespread international agreement. But mission creep without explicit aims and ends could rapidly erode that hard-won accord
We seem to enter conflicts increasingly on false premises. Last time it was Iraq, where the pretence to be concerned with weapons of mass destruction camouflaged the desire for regime change. This time the desire to protect the Libyan people conceals a determination to get rid of Colonel Mu’ammer Gaddafi.
I, too, believe that a Gaddafi-free Libya would be a great improvement and that the Blair attempt to rehabilitate a recidivist international criminal like Col Gaddafi was a huge and embarrassing mistake. From Col Gaddafi’s part in the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in London’s St James’s Square in 1984 to the shipment of massive quantities of Semtex and other arms to the IRA, the Lockerbie bombing, the brutal killing of British hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s and his attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Col Gaddafi has been an unrepentant mad dog forced to retreat over WMD as he saw what had happened to Saddam Hussein.
So if we believe him to be such an unmitigated bad thing, should we not be moving to remove him? It sounds a good idea but there are many reasons why we need to be cautious before embracing the Blair doctrine of wholesale intervention. The Nato Kosovo intervention is often cited as the great example of successful humanitarian intervention. But as so often in the Balkans the situation was complex. Bad Serbs, good Albanian Kosovars doesn’t begin to do justice to the complexity of the situation.
Nor can the outcome be described as a triumph for human rights; oppression of Kosovars by Serbs may have stopped but there has been an ethnic cleansing in reverse with close to a quarter of a million Serbs, Roma and other ethnic minorities in Kosovo forced to flee. Recent claims in a Council of Europe report that leading figures in the Kosovo Liberation Army – now the Kosovan Government – were involved in trafficking Serb organs give little indication that the region is coming to terms with its past.
Iraq, like Kosovo, was another intervention without international sanction. The United Nations Secretary General described the Iraq intervention as illegal. The United Kingdom Government’s own international lawyers were unanimous in declaring the Iraq invasion to be illegal only to be overruled by the Attorney General and to have their views concealed from Cabinet.
This time we do have a UN Security Council resolution skilfully negotiated by David Cameron over initial United States opposition. But it does not encompass regime change; it is limited to measures to prevent attacks on the civilian population. As such it is to be welcomed and indeed applauded. But what happens when or if the imposition of the no-fly zone simply ossifies the position on the ground?
Historically, the east of Libya centred on Benghazi is quite distinct from the rest of the country and has suffered disproportionately under Col Gaddafi. It is not impossible that the country will be effectively divided while a civil war ensues. We have no mandate from the UN to intervene on the ground to help the anti-Gaddafi forces take Tripoli. We could, of course, arm them, which would allow them to defend the territory gained but we are then drifting further away from humanitarian intervention and closer to direct military involvement. More importantly, it might make it more difficult in future to secure Security Council backing for future humanitarian interventions.
From a parochial British point of view, we will want to gauge whether removing Col Gaddafi, as opposed to stopping his attacks on his own people, matters sufficiently to us as to be prepared to see our soldiers actively engaged on the ground. In reaching a decision are we motivated by a desire to protect our own security and energy supplies or are we inspired by the obvious wish of significant elements of the Libyan people to be free of the Gaddafi incubus? Almost certainly the latter.
But after the bitter experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, public opinion will want to know what the exit strategy is. If we are prepared to intervene on the ground to save Benghazi from being overrun by Col Gaddafi, how long would we be prepared to remain?
From an international point of view, we should look at Libya against internationally agreed criteria for action. A Canadian-inspired International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty reported in 2001, when perhaps enthusiasm for intervention was at its high-water mark, setting out six criteria to justify intervention under the premise of responsibility to protect: just cause, right intention, final resort, legitimate authority, proportional means and reasonable prospect.
Several of these criteria are redolent of St Thomas Aquinas’ criteria for a just war. They are also highly subjective and it is therefore right that such value judgements be taken by the Security Council and not by a group of nations, particularly Western nations whose good intentions can so easily be called into question by those who refuse to see any moral compass in Western policy and ascribe every action as motivated by greed for oil.
Not that the Security Council judgements are on a par with papal infallibility. Russia has stymied discussion in the Security Council of Chechnya while China got away without any serious international sanction over its Gaddafi-like treatment of the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. No talk of a no-fly zone or the bombing of government tanks there.
Has the UN redeemed itself in its action over Libya? Yes and no. It has shown that it can be mobilised behind limited action. But veto-wielding countries can distort the collective will of the international community, which leads on to a bigger debate on the reform of the UN to make intervention and the right to protect citizens from the worst behaviour of their governments easier.
A Security Council that reflected the geographical and demographic realities better than the 1945 post-war disposition would obviously be fairer and enhance the stature of the council. Unfortunately the British and French turkeys are unlikely any time soon to vote for the early Christmas of surrendering their permanent places on the council. Nor will the big three of Russia, China and the US give up their veto power. In other words, the UN Security Council will remain flawed. But its judgement remains the nearest we have to an interpretative body of international law.
So two cheers for the UN’s resolution on Libya last week but let us not imagine that it has given us a charter for removing Col Gaddafi. Either the Libyan people will have to bring it about, or the Libyan leader will stay perhaps hunkered down in Tripoli, or we may feel impelled to intervene. In which case let us not pretend we haven’t been here before. And how will we get out? The Arab League who called for a no-fly zone will be the first to castigate the new Crusaders, unless, of course, they are beaten to the punch by al-Qaeda.