Solutions to Violent Conflict

Imperfect Actions in an Imperfect World

In Middle East on October 5, 2011 at 12:28 pm

George A. Lopez

I disagree with my colleagues David Cortright and Mary Ellen O’Connell regarding the scope and direction of the Libyan intervention of the Security Council and NATO.

The essential dilemma faced by the international community, as manifest in Security Council debates for Resolutions 1970 and 1973, was that of not having a range of plausible or good choices. This was due to:

  • The speed with which the rebels spread their militant challenge against the Libyan government geographically; and
  • the level of armed response the Qaddafi regime was clearly mobilizing against rebel strongholds, which were heavily populated by innocent civilians caught in the cross-fire.

FAR REACHING, TARGETED SANCTIONS

In late February, just 11 days after the Benghazi riots and two days after rebels first claimed to hold Misrata, the Security Council imposed far-reaching, targeted sanctions against the Qaddafi family and inner circle of supporters. Through a combination of freezing government and personal assets overseas, a travel ban, and imposing an extensive arms embargo, the Council immediately constrained Qaddafi’s ability to hire mercenaries, raised the price of arms, and altered the costs of on-going loyalty to his regime. By any measure, these sanctions degraded Qaddafi’s real capability to wage an internal war.

The Council passed SCR 1973 because members agreed that Qaddafi was rapidly moving heavy artillery and mechanized forces to level Benghazi and kill thousands of civilians.

Mary Ellen O’Connell may be correct that the decisions of the Council and NATO were made in too short of time and lacked in-depth debate. But that was because the time before small battles turned to massacres was all too short. The Council passed SCR 1973 because members agreed that Qaddafi was rapidly moving heavy artillery and mechanized forces to level Benghazi and kill thousands of civilians.

THE OPTIONS ON THE TABLE

The international community was either going to watch helplessly as a massacre occurred in Benghazi, or it was going to take strong military action to prevent this. In a perfect world the creation of a humanitarian corridor to permit the evacuation of innocent civilians would have been preferable. So too would have been a ceasefire among all fighting factions. But such options were not acceptable to either the rebels or the Qaddafi regime.

NATO’s rapid destruction of Qaddafi’s capabilities led to increased defections and desertions from the government’s armed forces and thus fewer bloody battles with the rebels.

I agree that NATO adopted a permissive interpretation of SCR 1973 in deciding to attack and destroy substantial amounts of Qaddafi’s fighting power throughout the country and also in destroying his command and control systems in Tripoli. But these actions were not a violation of that authorization.

GUARANTEEING CIVILIAN PROTECTION

The Russian Federation, China, and other governments claim that NATO’s action was far beyond the Council’s intent. But NATO commanders concluded that such comprehensive attacks were the only way to guarantee fully civilian protection as the fighting intensified. NATO’s rapid destruction of Qaddafi’s capabilities led to increased defections and desertions from the government’s armed forces and thus fewer bloody battles with the rebels. This was most clear in the preservation of Tripoli from any devastating fighting.

Deaths attributable to rebel action and NATO bombing are significantly lower than those caused by the attacks of the Qaddafi regime.

In truth, we will not know for some time the full scope of civilian or combatants casualties caused by NATO, rebel and Qaddafi forces. Well-documented data from February through March reveals between 2,000 and 3,000 Libyans were killed, the vast majority by government forces. Casualty estimates cited for the period after March are wide ranging—from 3,000 to 30,000 civilians killed by all actors. The traditional credible human rights actors now operating in the country all indicate that deaths attributable to rebel action and NATO bombing are significantly lower than those caused by the attacks of the Qaddafi regime.

WAR IS NOT THE WINNER

To be sure, the NATO actions created stronger divisions within the Security Council than already existed regarding whether the Libyan crisis constitutes a ‘threat to peace’ as specified in the UN Charter. Some Council members worry that the Council’s actions amounted to an intervention on one side of a civil war. The practical result is that nothing short of a full scale politicide would now lead the Russian Federation or China to approve either statements or sanctions condemning Syria.

But this does not mean that ‘war was the winner’ in the Security Council decisions and NATO action in Libya. Rather, the vast majority of the Libya people will be winners as the fighting by Qaddafi forces comes to an end and the rule of law and representative government begin to emerge. Were it not for Security Council targeted sanctions and NATO air strikes, however questionable they may be, a brutal internal war and massive casualties almost certainly would have unfolded. They were imperfect but effective actions in an imperfect world.

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Chair in Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.