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Q4. Critically assess the principle of humanitarian
intervention as applied to Libya??
By: Eoin Guerin
Module No: SOCM031
Module: America After 9/11
The ethics behind humanitarian interventions in terms of international relations is highly debated
and contentious. Many academics have argued the merits of humanitarian intervention. Jacques
Ranciere has analysed the merits of humanitarian intervention and compared it to a form of new
imperialism which does not benefit those whose rights are supposedly being intervened on behalf of.
Ranciere (2004) states that the right to humanitarian interference has become “a right that some
nations assume to the supposed benefit of victimized populations, and very often against the advice
of humanitarian organizations themselves”.
Slavoj Zizek argues that human rights are projected onto people whose rights are infringed upon as a
method of not having to engage or consult with them at a personal level. They become faceless
victims of human right abuses which allows Western powers to intervene politically, economically
and militarily to defend their human rights. In this way, those suffering from human rights abuses
have no voice therefore real change specific to the needs of the affected population are ignored
Libya And Human Rights
Prior to the escalation of the crisis and the rebellion against Qadhafi, Libya historically had a poor
human rights record. The state was perceived as having a heavy influence on the judiciary thus there
was little of chance of defendants receiving a fair trial. Ethnic minorities were discriminated against,
there was a high level of religious intolerance and freedom of the press was limited. The Federal
Research Division (2005) stated that “Some of the numerous and serious abuses on the part of the
government include poor prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and detention, prisoners held
incommunicado, and political prisoners held for many years without charge or trial”.
Origins Of Revolt
The origins of revolt in Libya can be said to have developed from the wave of political protests and
subsequent regime changes in some cases that enveloped the Arab World in the early months of
2011. Historically Libya has been made up of a complex network of tribes and these tribes have
played a central role in politics and social relations within Libyan Society. Qadhafi had operated
these tribal complexities with a carrot and stick policy. Those tribes who were loyal to him were
showered with wealth and high social positioning and political influence. This created a system
whereby ordinary Libyans were reliant on the Tribal system to gain prestige and social standing.
The Libyan parliament passed a ‘code of honour’ system in 1997 which further tightened the
governments grip on tribes and clans. This gave Qadhafi and the government the power to revoke
government services as a form of punishment against clans who were not subservient or deemed
disloyal to the regime. This led to growing resentment among certain tribal clans and while the Arab
Spring definitely served as a pretext to the unrest that ensued in the early days of the revolution in
Libya, undoubtedly the code of honour system and clan favouritism pursued by Qadhafi played a
major part also. Mokhefi (2011) states that “The most marginalised tribes are found in the eastern
part of Libya, where the most important oil resources are located, and where political authority
passed out of Gaddafi’s hands in the recent uprising”.
The Case for Intervention
The Uprising began in Benghazi on the 15th
February 2011 following the arrest of a human rights
activist in the city. Protests initially were peaceful by nature and called for social improvements
along with further political rights. However these marches became increasingly violent and were
met with violence by loyalist forces. Growing resentment to the violent confrontation meted out by
Qadhafis loyalists led many politicians and those within the military to defect. The rebels under the
title under the Interim Transitional National Council were quick to gain control of a number of key
areas such as Tobruk and Benghazi however many towns continued to swap hands between rebels
and regime forces in the early months of the revolution..There was the imminent threat of mass
civilian deaths in Benghazi after threats made by Qadhafi to this effect. Al Jazeera(2011) and several
other news outlets reported that Qadhafi in a speech said "You all go out and cleanse the city of
Benghazi” threatening the lives and safety of the cities citizens. In the face of such a threat the
United Nations was forced to act.
Hasler 2012 states that “The UN Security Council passed an initial resolution on 26 February that
condemned the violence, imposed a series of international sanctions on Libya and on Qadhafi and
his family and referred Libya’s crackdown on rebels to the International Criminal Court”. Under
Resolution 1970 Libya was also placed under an arms embargo. However the manner in which
Resolution 1970 was adopted must be questioned. The Libyan Issue was not brought to the security
council’s attention by the arab league or by another member nation of the Security Council. It was
brought to the fore by a former representative of Libya who had resigned from his position as Libya
Charge d’Affaires at the United Nations one week earlier. And within one week despite having no
legitimacy to speak at the United Nations, had enacted a process which led to the adoption of
Security Resolution 1970 (Hauben, 2011).
The actions of the Security Council in relation to the Libyan crisis are considered to have been
unusually quick. On March 17 after much pressure from the rebels themselves and the nations
supporting them, a further resolution was adopted, UN resolution 1973. This imposed a no fly zone
over Syrian airspace while also calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and gives NATO the
power to act. Ngangje (2011) states this resolution called for the “adoption of all necessary
measures to protect the Libyan Civilian population from Muammar Gaddafi”. Many commentators
and analysts have questioned what this ‘all necessary measures’ should essentially allow and
whether the term was manipulated during the Libyan crisis. It was between the period of February
when the revolution first took hold and March 17th
upon which the no fly zone was imposed that
the protocol ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was indeed in operation
“The sight of attack aircraft targeting Libyan command and control facilities triggered a barrage of
criticisms by anti-interventionist commentators and state leaders” noted Dunne and Gifkins (2011).
Operation Odyssey Dawn to these critics did not appear or resemble anything like humanitarian
protection. The response by the International Community to the crisis that evolved in Libya was
surprisingly swift given the will among nations to intervene in the face of far harsher atrocities that
have occurred in other nations over much longer periods. The inadequate reaction of the world
community to the atrocities committed in the 90’s, particularly in Rwanda and the Balkan Wars,
resulted in the creation of the “responsibility to protect” (RtoP) framework by Kofi Annan. This was
designed to give further clarification to the rationale behind humanitarian interventions.
It was between the period of February 15th
when the revolution first took hold and March 17th
which the no fly zone was imposed that the protocol ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was put into
operation. During this period, the Libyan Government was given the opportunity to protect the
people and when it failed to meet this objective, the approval of Libya’s neighbours and the Arab
League was sought and consequently a no fly zone was implemented now that the conditions to act
Responsibility to Protect
RtoP was collectively implemented by all members of the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit.
Bellamy and Williams (2011) stated that this policy “recognized that states had a responsibility to
protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity;
that international society had a duty to assist states to fulfil RtoP; and that, should a state manifestly
fail to protect its populations from these crimes, international society would take timely and decisive
action through the various propositions set out by the UN Charter”. In authorizing Resolution 1973
on the 27th
March 2011, it represented the first time that the UN Security Council had legitimized the
use of military force in support of humanitarian protection against the desires of a sovereign nation.
The endorsement of RtoP was met with caution by many states. The concept of military intervention
as a legal duty within the framework of RtoP has been questioned. Francioni and Bakker (2013) state
that “The World Summit has expressed its “preparedness” to take measures based on Chapter VII,
but neither did it recognize a “right” of humanitarian intervention outside of the Charter system, nor
a “duty” to do so within the Charter system”. However the approval of the use of force to protect
the people of Libya has been welcomed by some as an endorsement of RtoP protcols.The
implementation of RtoP protocols and also the approval of neighbouring states of Libya and the Arab
League. gave western nations a very powerful mandate for humanitarian intervention.
The term ‘humanitarian intervention’ has now attracted a large network of institutions and
protocols. During the Libya intervention, NATO, The United Nations, The Arab League, The African
Union, The UN Security Council in addition to resolutions adopted, The RtoP protocols and the
International Criminal Court among others all played some part in legitimizing the process of
humanitarian intervention to occur. Such a complex apparatus is designed so that as previously
mentioned the likes of Rwanda do not go unnoticed again.
Nations were unwilling to commit to any legally binding initiative during the Libyan crisis that
involved the international community committing to protecting the Libyan people. States were
reluctant in the face of the fact that it would set a precedent in incidents of a nature whereby they
would be committed on the face of the Libyan experience to act in the same manner. Some
observers have noted the hypocrisy of this position in relation to humanitarian intervention
considering the international community has on this basis accepted that it will only protect some
citizens, from certain countries and only on some occasions. Kersten (2013) states “This seems to
reaffirm a pick-and-choose version of humanitarian interventions which is difficult to distinguish
from the practice selective interventionism of pre-R2P international relations”.
Was Military Intervention Justifiable??
In considering the concept of humanitarian intervention in its simplest form, there may have been
just cause as a means of protecting the Libyan people against human rights violations for intervening.
It has its merits however in line with Ranciere’s concept of human rights interventions, the term was
misused and manipulated to launch an intervention for reasons not becoming of its mandate.
There is considerable rationale for stating that Western powers not only intervened for
humanitarian purposes but also to precipitate regime change something RtoP does not envisage nor
allows for within its framework. Others may argue that mission creep set in and the missions
objectives changed in reaction to events on the ground. However the arming of various rebel
factions brings further into question how such emphasis brings about an end to human rights
violations given that conflicts and uprisings that lead to civil wars tend to result in atrocities on both
sides ie Syria.
Vivienne Walt of Time Magazine (2011) reported that Qadhafi’s youngest son Seif-al Arab and three
of Qadhafis children were killed in an airstrike by NATO which narrowly missed the Libyan Leader.
NATO maintained throughout the Libyan conflict that regime change was not the priority but as was
reported during the crisis there were many strikes on the Qadhafi compound in Tripoli, a policy
which seems to suggest that regime change was being pursued. Spillius and Laing (2011) report on
an admission by Admiral Samuel Locklear commander of the NATO Joint Operations Command in
Naples who said in relation to the humanitarian intervention taking place in Libya, “I believe the
scope that NATO is pursuing is beyond what is contemplated in civil protection so they’re exceeding
the mission”. As seen in the war in Iraq, pursuing a policy of regime change can in many instances do
more harm than good.
While humanitarian intervention undoubtedly protected the residents of Benghazi and other areas
during the Libyan crisis, it is unlikely going by present findings that the human rights of Libyan
citizens have improved as a result of NATO’s campaign. United Nations Human Rights (2013) reports
that torture and other forms of ill-treatment in Libya continue to occur, 8,000 detainees are
currently being held without due process.
A major concept of debate within international relations on humanitarian interventions centres
around whether intervention truly reflects the will of the people or whether it is an engineered
process designed to promote people ideally suited to the West. One of the major pitfalls that occur
post humanitarian missions is that the country in question can fall back into civil war given this new
found understanding among local populations that violence can provide change. Much of Libya is
now lawless and run by militias rather than state institutions.
It could be argued based on the Human Rights Report mentioned earlier that this government is no
better than the last in certain terms. Valentino (2011) talks about the United States involvement in
this mission and argues that “Washington should replace its focus on military intervention with a
humanitarian foreign policy centred on saving lives by funding public health programs in the
developing world, aiding victims of natural disasters, and assisting refugees fleeing violent conflict”.
When you look at the concept of humanitarian policy from Valentino’s perspective, there is certainly
weight to suggesting that such ethical programs are far from part of the core doctrine of
humanitarian intervention. To suggest that the term ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been hijacked is
not too far from the truth.
Al Jazeera. (2011). UN authorises no-fly zone over Libya. Available:
Bellamy A. (2011). The new politics of protection? Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and the
responsibility to protect. Available:
Dunne,T. (2011). Libya and the State of Intervention∗. Available:
http://www.uq.edu.au/isaasiapacific/content/GifkinsDunne.pdf. Last accessed
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and Human rights: Lessons from Libya to Mali. Available:
http://www.iai.it/pdf/Transworld/TW_WP_15.pdf. Last accessed 04/01/2014.
Hasler, S. (2012). EXPLAINING HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION IN LIBYA AND NON-
INTERVENTION IN SYRIA. Available: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a562721.pdf.
Last accessed 06/01/2014.
Hauben, R. (2011). The Role of the UN Security Council in Unleashing an Illegal War
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council-in-unleashing-an-illegal-war-against-libya/25715. Last accessed 06/01/2014.
Kersten, M. (2013). A Fatal Attraction? The UN Security Council and the Relationship
between R2P and the International Criminal Court. Available:
he_Relationship_between_R2P_and_the_International_Criminal_Court. Last accessed
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Un Human Rights. (2013). TORTURE AND DEATHS IN DETENTION IN LIBYA . Available:
0En%2001Oct2013.pdf. Last accessed 06/01/2014.
Valentino,B. (2011). The True Costs of Humanitarian Intervention.Available:
http://people.umass.edu/charli/docs/ValentinoFA.pdf. Last accessed 06/01/2014.
Walt,M. (2011). Gaddafi Survives a NATO Air Strike, as Fighting Intensifies. Available:
http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2068773,00.html. Last accessed