“Humanitarian intervention” in Libya?


Standing beside US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in Washington on 18 March 2011, our new Foreign Minister, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, gave Ireland’s backing to regime change in Libya and the Western intervention aimed at bringing it about.  He said:


As regards to Libya, I believe that Colonel Qadhafi has lost all legitimacy to rule and should be encouraged to leave the stage.” [1]


The encouragement is contained in two Security Council resolutions, number 1970 passed unanimously on 26 February 2011 and number 1973 passed on 17 March 2011 by 10 votes (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, France, Gabon, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal, South Africa, UK and the US) to none, with 5 abstentions (Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia) [2].


Resolution 1970 imposed an arms embargo on Libya, a travel ban and assets freeze on the family of Muammar Al-Qadhafi and certain Government officials.  It also referred “the situation in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya since15 February 2011” to the International Criminal Court (paragraphs 4-8).


Resolution 1973 authorised UN member states


“to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory” (paragraph 4).


“All necessary measures” is the traditional Security Council euphemism for armed force.  The resolution also imposed


“a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians” (paragraph 6)


that is, a No Fly Zone.


The Irish Times editorial of 21 March 2011 said that Resolution 1973 was “binding on Ireland to assist” [3], which implies that Ireland is required to assist in military operations against Libya.  That is not so: the resolution allows UN member states to engage in such operations and requests member states to assist by, for example, allowing overflights, but a state is not obliged to do either.


However, it is binding on all member states, including Ireland, to apply the arms embargo, the travel ban and the assets freeze, that is, those aspects of the resolutions that do not involve military action.


Enough to overthrowing the Qadhafi regime?

Will the provisions of Resolutions 1970 and 1973 allow France and Britain, the prime movers in getting them through the Security Council, to achieve their goal of overthrowing the Qadhafi regime?


It’s unlikely that the rather limited economic sanctions in these resolutions will bring down the regime, certainly not in the short term.  And it is by no means certain that the military action authorised in these resolutions are sufficient to break the present stalemate, in which the opposition forces are largely confined to the Benghazi area.


On the face of it, by “excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”, Resolution 1973 bans the use of French or British ground troops to effect regime change, in which case they will have to rely on the opposition forces in the Benghazi area, supported by foreign air power.


Currently, these forces are poorly armed and utterly disorganised.  Chris McGreal wrote in the Guardian on 22 March 2011 that “rebels manning an anti-aircraft gun were probably responsible for shooting down the revolutionaries' only fighter plane” [4].


The questions arises: do the resolutions permit the arming and training of this rudimentary force so that, coupled with foreign air support, it might be capable of overthrowing the Qadhafi regime?


The answer to that appears to be YES.  Whereas paragraph 9 of Resolution 1970, imposes an arms embargo on Libya, paragraph 4 of Resolution 1973 cancels the embargo in the context of member states taking military action to protect civilians, authorising member states “to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians”.


A further question is: what restrictions, if any, does Resolution 1973 impose on the use of foreign air power against Libyan military forces?  A subsidiary question is: does Resolution 1973 empower foreign states to target and kill Colonel Qadhafi and other Libyan leaders?


At the time of writing, foreign air power has destroyed the Libyan air force and its air defence systems.  This has been said to be necessary in order to make overflying Libya safe for foreign planes enforcing the No Fly Zone.


In addition, French planes destroyed an armoured column moving in the direction of Benghazi.  This was justified on the grounds that the column was about to attack Benghazi and kill civilians.


However, it is clear that, as far as France and Britain are concerned, Libyan ground forces are fair game, whether or not they are acting in an aggressive manner.  At the time of writing (25 March 2011), military bases are being bombed and deployed forces are being attacked from the air, even though they are not on the offensive.


No doubt, the justification for this will be that so long Qadhafi has any military forces at his disposal he will use them to kill civilians – and therefore destroying them is a measure necessary to protect civilians, within the terms of Resolution 1973, paragraph 4.  It follows from this that providing air support for attacking anti-Qadhafi forces would also be within the terms of Resolution 1973, paragraph 4.  The possibility of killing large numbers of civilians is the only restraint on this action.


Targeting and killing Colonel Qadhafi and other Libyan leaders could also be justified under Resolution 1973 on similar grounds.  After all, since he has said to be giving the orders for his troops to kill civilians, then it’s not too much of a stretch to argue that killing him is necessary to protect civilians.


There has been a public dispute in Britain between the military and politicians on this question.  When asked if Colonel Qadhafi was a legitimate target, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir David Richards, said: “Absolutely not.  It is not allowed under the UN resolution.”  However, the politicians were quick to deny this – a spokesman for Prime Minister Cameron explained that it was lawful to target Qadhafi if he was seen as organising the threat to civilians, since the Security Council’s objective was to protect civilians (Guardian, 22 March 2011, [5]).


Continuing stalement?

So, the provisions of Resolution 1973 with regard to the protection of civilians are extremely wide.  They are being interpreted as giving carte blanche to attack and destroy Libyan government forces wherever they may be found.  Nevertheless, without foreign troops on the ground, the likely outcome is a continuing stalemate with Qadhafi in power and controlling most of Libya. 


Such an outcome with Qadhafi remaining in power would be intolerable to France and Britain, and the US.  Success for them is the unseating of Qadhafi and it’s difficult to believe they will settle for less.  For that, ground troops may be required.


It has been generally assumed that Resolution 1973 doesn’t permit that, since “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory” is specifically excluded from the “necessary measures”.  But, that doesn’t actually exclude a foreign liberation force to overthrow the Qadhafi regime, which, as British Foreign Minister, William Hague, told the House of Commons on 24 March 2011, is a sine qua non of “any peaceful or viable future for the people of Libya” [6].


No doubt there are some foreign boots on the ground there already.


Why has Libya been singled out?

Why has Qadhafi’s Libya been singled out for attention by the West when a matter of weeks ago he was a valued ally?  Around 400 people were killed by state forces in Egypt without any suggestion of military action and all of them were unarmed, whereas some at least of the Libyan opposition forces are armed.  Unarmed protestors are being shot down in the street in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, without any suggestion that similar action is being contemplated.


It is inconceivable that the governments of France and Britain and the US embarked on this mission out of concern for the lives of Libyan civilians.  In recent years, the US itself has killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan in drone attacks, triggered from the safety of mainland US.  The slaughter has intensified under the Obama administration and it is still going on.  Has France or Britain has ever expressed any concern for these civilian killings, carried out regularly by their close ally?  Of course not.


Israel killed around 1,500 Lebanese civilians from the air in the summer of 2006 and around 1,500 Palestinian civilians in Gaza in 2008/9.  The chorus of demands for a No Fly Zone in Libya was prompted by claims that the Qadhafi regime was massacring civilians from the air, evidence for which is hard to come by.


But there is no doubt that Israel has killed thousands of Arab civilians from the air in the last few years, without any call for a No Fly Zone from Britain or France or the US.  In the case of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the US and Britain acted to prolong the conflict, and the killing, in order, they hoped, to give Israel time to wipe out Hezbollah.


It isn’t credible that these governments are motivated by humanitarian concern for Libyan civilians.  For them, humanitarian concern is merely an instrument for whipping up domestic and international support for action they want to embark on for other reasons.


Nor are the Imperial Powers motivated by a desire to see political systems in the Middle East that are responsive to the popular will.  Such an Arab world would act far more in accord with its own interests, rather than being manipulated by Western interests.  The idea therefore is to support limited change in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrein and Yemen, on the understanding that there is no revolution.  The situation in Libya is different, where regime change is sought.


Though Qadhafi  has accommodated himself to Western interests in recent years, and opposes Al Qaida, he has maintained the coherence of the Arab nationalist state he has built, and retained a form of Socialism in its structures.  This is intolerable to Western interests, which prefer to see a mess a la Iraq, rather than a strong state pursuing the interests of its people in its own way.  The plan, therefore, is to destroy the Libyan state under humanitarian and democratic guise.  It is no concern of the West that it may be unleashing a bloodbath.  


First Iraq, then Libya:  that leaves the last Arab Socialist State, Syria.  That’s why France and Britain and the US are bombing Libya.



David Morrison

March 2011




[1]  www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/03/158584.htm

[2]  www.un.org/Depts/dhl/resguide/scact2011.htm

[3]  www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2011/0321/1224292708296.html

[4]  www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/21/libyan-rebellion-chaos-civilians-war

[5]  www.guardian.co.uk/news/defence-and-security-blog/2011/mar/25/gaddafi-assassination-british

[6]  www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmhansrd/cm110324/debtext/110324-0002.htm