Exactly one year ago today, the international community began its military intervention into Libya in response to the Qaddafi regime’s widespread violence against civilians. This anniversary should serve as a moment of reflection. Was intervention the right choice? Was it done the right way? Is Libya better off today for the intervention? What were the lessons learned from Libya? And the inevitable question, what does it mean for the case in Syria today?
Was intervention the right choice?
Yes, international intervention to protect civilians was the right choice in Libya. I, and United to End Genocide, were among the first to call for a no-fly zone as “practical, necessary, and the right thing”. The international community had tried stepped up diplomacy, unified condemnation, targeted sanctions on individuals and on oil shipments that supplied the increasingly hostile regime, and clear warnings of accountability through referral to the International Criminal Court. The Libyan people united in calls for help buoyed by high level defectors in the armed forces and diplomatic ranks. The Arab League, the hallmark of regional legitimacy asked for a no-fly zone. And in the end as Qaddafi’s forces approached the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, threatening to “cleanse Libya house by house” the international community responded through the UN Security Council to sanction a no-fly zone and call for “all necessary measures…to protect civilians”. Indeed, from the series of graduated measures down to the last resort and UN Security Council approval, Libya was a textbook case for the Responsibility to Protect.
Was intervention done in the right way?
The how of the intervention gets messier. The escalation from implementation of a no-fly zone to air support for the forces of the Libyan Transitional Council and the resulting regime change has stirred up a great amount of controversy. While I am among those who believe that such measures were indeed necessary to protect civilians, one cannot deny the negative effects that this intervention has had on current civilian protection discussions nor the number of casualties that resulted, including at least 60 civilians killed in NATO bomb strikes. Russia and China in particular have been reluctant to allow even strong condemnation of attacks on civilians in Sudan and Syria through the UN Security Council for fear of opening up the way for intervention similar to that taken in Libya. Countries like Brazil, India and South Africa have bolstered these stances. A recent report by the U.N. International Commission of Inquiry in Libya notes that anti-Qaddafi forces committed serious violations, “including war crimes and breaches of international human rights law.”
It is important to be aware of these negative effects of the Libya intervention. However, I believe that they are outweighed by the positive effect of a massacre diverted and civilian lives saved. The hypothetical of how many might have been killed if the international community had not intervened is difficult to quantify but there was certainly a precedent with Qaddafi who had killed over 1,000 prisoners, many from Benghazi, in a single day in 1996. There was also clear intent as Qaddafi threatened “we will have no mercy and no pity” and had already used fighter jets, attack helicopters and snipers on civilians. As the UN report states, widespread abuses came at the hands of the Qaddafi regime as “acts of murder, enforced disappearance, and torture were perpetrated within the context of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.”
Is Libya better off today for the intervention?
Yes. A massacre was avoided and civilian lives were saved. However, the long term effects of the intervention remain to be seen. Sporadic fighting continues and tribal leaders have threatened to secede. Human Rights Watch reports ongoing killings, torture, and forced displacement by militias. The ability of the Transitional National Council to move toward a stable, legitimate government and to avoid a civil war remains to be seen. Still, the shaky current government overseeing a relatively peaceful unified country is a far cry from the brutal crackdown seen just one year ago.
What are the lessons learned from Libya?
The Libyan intervention shows that when mass atrocities are threatened the world can rally to take meaningful steps to save lives. These steps should follow a course of steady escalation from increasing diplomatic pressure, unified condemnation, international sanctions and warning of accountability, followed only as a last resort by military intervention.
Messier questions involve the fact that countries like France and Qatar provided weapons to the Libyan opposition in violation of a UN arms embargo. Weapons from Libya are now flowing throughout the region, with a particularly negative effect in Mali. Qaddafi was killed in questionable circumstances and his son and former intelligence chief may not be tried by the International Criminal Court.
Just as important is the lesson that not every situation will be a Libya. This is most relevant today in the debate over whether to intervene in Syria. The geopolitical context, the armed capacities, the size and terrain of the countries, the unity within the opposition, the level of high-profile defections, and the international appetite for intervention are all very different. The debate over whether or how to intervene in Syria is beyond the scope of this blog, but as it rages on it is helpful to keep in mind how Libya and Syria are and are not similar. Any intervention must be the last resort and must be carefully weighed for the ultimate consequences on civilian lives. The continuing abuses make a strong case for intervention, but if action is taken everyone will have to answer the same questions we are now answering on Libya.
The question of intervention to protect civilians will always be fraught with difficult considerations. But one important lesson is that just because we cannot intervene everywhere, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene where we can. In Libya we could, we did, and that is something worth celebrating.