Sunday, October 30, 2011

Was NATO's intervention in Libya justified?

Disclaimer: I do not intend to authoritatively decree (not that I have any power to do so) as to whether or not NATO’s campaign in Libya was justified or legal. I just wanted to state a few facts and pose a few questions that merit deeper attention.

It’s October-end and the world remains awash with stories related to Col. Gaddafi’s controversial death refusing to die down. We all know that Col. Gaddafi – who had ruled Libya since 1969 – was recently killed in his hometown Sirte on October 20th. He had been dislodged from power in a civil war that had erupted in February 2011 following similar anti-government protests in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.

Beginnings (February 2011):

The anti-government demonstrations in Tunisia (December 2010) and Egypt (January-February 2011) had earlier led to the ouster of long-time rulers Ben Ali (of Tunisia) and Hosni Mubarak (of Egypt) respectively. Subsequently, anti-government protests began in the Libyan city of Benghazi. The protesters came to be known as ‘rebels’ and they waged war against the Libyan government. Meanwhile, many prominent government officials and diplomats defected to the side of the rebels. The world media reported that the rebels were fighting for democracy and freedom and we as yet do not have sufficient reasons to not believe in this version of events. Nevertheless, rebels advanced rapidly in the next few weeks capturing many of Libya’s important cities. However, Government forces launched a counter-offensive and drove off rebels from town after town. Eventually by March 2011, the rebels were pushed back to their strongholds of Benghazi and Misrata. The rebels called for international assistance.

Foreign intervention and Gaddafi’s ceasefire offer (March 2011):

On March 17, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted the UNSC resolution 1973 that authorized the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect civilians from any airstrikes by Col. Gaddafi’s forces. Thus, UK and France began a series of airstrikes in Libya in order to neutralize the Libyan Air Force so that it did not pose a danger to civilians. Nevertheless, immediately after the passage of the UNSC resolution 1973, the Libyan Government declared ceasefire with the rebels.


The Libyan Government too cited the well-being of civilians as the reason behind it’s decision to declare the ceasefire. The Government further said that it sought assistance from Turkey (a powerful NATO member) and Malta to supervise and implement the ceasefire. However, it seemed the West had already made up it’s mind. After having secured the UN approval to bomb Libya, how could the NATO resist embarking upon the military adventure? US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flatly dismissed the ceasefire offer by the Libyan government. She said "…we would have to see actions on the ground and that is not yet at all clear." Of course, it remains a mystery if the Western nations ever made any serious efforts to “see actions on the ground”. I have not yet come across any news report that shows Turkey or Malta responding to Libyan government’s offer to supervise the ceasefire.

Nevertheless Hillary Clinton went a step ahead and decreed that "We will continue to work with our partners in the international community to press Gaddafi to leave and to support the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people." [Emphasis added] Wow! Did she forget that the UN mandate was only to protect civilians, not to overthrow the government? The fact that Clinton openly called for removal of an internationally recognized Government amounted to breach of UN Charter which prohibits use of threats against sovereign nations. Anyways, we all know that the rules of international diplomacy are quite different for Western nations, so we shall not bother with this little issue any further.

So, despite Gaddafi’s calls for ceasefire, the NATO went ahead with it’s airstrikes and fighting continued. Of course, there remains the big possibility that Gaddafi was never sincere about the ceasefire proposal. In fact, the rebels claimed that the government forces continued shelling rebel-held Misrata and Benghazi even after the official declaration of ceasefire. So which side do we trust – the government version of implementation of ceasefire or the rebel version of breach of faith? One possible way to gauge the two sides’ sincerity is by studying their official announcements. While the government asked Malta and Turkey to supervise the ceasefire, the rebels dismissed the government’s offer saying that Gaddafi is a “liar”.

The rebel commander Khalifa Heftir said, "Gaddafi does not speak any truth... All the world knows that Muammar Gaddafi is a liar. He and his sons, and his family, and all those with him are liars."


Nevertheless, amidst all the chaos and all the difficulty in determining who was speaking the truth, the Western nations had already made up their mind that Gaddafi must go. So began airstrikes over Libya on 19th March, giving no time for the government’s ceasefire proposal (which was announced on 18th March). Fighting continued and rebels advanced under NATO’s umbrella. Rebels captured city after city and Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule looked in serious peril.

Gaddafi’s election offer (June 2011):

In June 2011, after the tide of war had turned against them, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam announced that Col. Gaddafi was willing to hold elections and that he would step aside if he lost. Saif al-Islam further said that the elections could be held within three months and transparency would be guaranteed through international observers. However, NATO and the rebels rejected the offer.

The rebel spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga gave the logic behind rejecting the election offer. "We tell him (Saif al-Islam) that the time has passed because our rebels are at the outskirts of Tripoli, and they will join our people and rebels there to uproot the symbol of corruption and tyranny in Libya," Hafiz Ghoga told Al Jazeera.


It is indeed a novelty to see purported pro-democracy rebels opposing elections and more specifically denying a leader (Gaddafi) a chance to prove his support. Anyways, fighting continued and NATO resumed bombing operations. Meanwhile, reports emerged of human rights abuses by both the government and rebel forces. Reports also emerged of NATO bombings purportedly killing civilians.

The Climax (August – October 2011):

Slowly and steadily rebels advanced towards Tripoli aided by NATO air cover. By 22nd August, Tripoli was in rebel hands. Gaddafi loyalists held out for a couple of months more in Bani Walid and Gaddafi’s hometown Sirte. Commentators have often described the resistance put by Gaddafi loyalists as fierce even in the face of imminent defeat. In fact, NATO officers expressed surprise at the resilience shown by Gaddafi fighters in the face of rebels’ advance and NATO’s airpower.

New York Times on October 10th, “NATO Commander Says Resilience of Qaddafi Loyalists Is Surprising”



On October 20th, NATO bombed a convoy in Sirte resulting in the wounding and eventual capture and killing of Col. Muammar Mohammad al-Gaddafi (1942-2011).

Some time in future, when dispassionate analysis would be possible without prejudice, maybe our posterity will be able to judge whether Muammar Gaddafi was a greedy dictator or an anti-imperialist nationalist (or both)… Till then, we can ponder if the foreign intervention in Libya was justified or legal. And what it means for the future of Africa. Is this just a precursor of things to come? More wars to lay hands on Africa’s resources?

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