Are we at war in Libya?

NATO is at war in the skies above Libya. Or is it? It is striking that there are two distinctly opposed narratives describing the current international intervention: the first that NATO is acting impartially to protect civilians under UNSCR 1973, and the second that it is supporting the rebels in a civilian conflict against Col Gaddafi. Which of these two descriptions is accurate, and what does each imply in ethical, legal, and political terms?

Politically, the reasons for the first interpretation are apparent. The coalition of states supporting the intervention would fall apart if the stated aim became to overthrow Gaddafi; not only the Arab League but also NATO’s Turkey would probably find this politically impossible.

Nor do Western political leaders find it easy to talk of military intervention as “war”. We are still conditioned by the horrors of the Second World War, and when the UN was established in 1945 one of its main purposes was to reduce the likelihood of war occurring in future. Under the UN Charter war is justified only in self defence or where the Security Council agrees there is a threat to international peace and security and authorises an intervention under Chapter VII. Hence over the last 20 years when we have intervened to protect civilians who are threatened by their tyrannical rulers we have preferred to talk of “humanitarian intervention”; seeking the moral high ground by claiming an altruistic purpose (although these interventions have still been justified under Chapter VII). This started in earnest with the Kurdish crisis at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, and reached its high point with Kosovo and Sierra Leone in 1999 and 2000.

Kosovo, though, was a contested intervention: undertaken without UN approval. Partly in response to this, a new concept was formulated, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 and the Security Council in 2006. This states that the primary responsibility for protecting civilians from mass atrocities lies with the state to which they belong, but that where the state concerned is unable or unwilling to do so the international community has a responsibility to intervene.

The language of R2P is used in both Resolutions covering the current Libyan crisis: UNSCR 1970, where Gaddafi’s responsibility to protect his people is spelt out, and UNSCR 1973, which authorises “all necessary means” to enforce the will of the UN. But in general R2P is silent on the means of intervention should a state fail in its responsibility, and on who should carry it out. Although the prevailing assumption is that intervention means coercive military action, other policy options are available and, some would argue, are neglected. These options include forceful diplomacy, third-party mediation, or impartial humanitarian assistance if accepted by all parties. It is fair to ask whether the rush to condemn Gaddafi in the UN in February reduced the West’s room for manoeuvre and closed off these alternative avenues. In the early days of the uprising it might have been possible to secure some form of cease-fire and political process, but by the time Gaddafi was referred to the International Criminal Court (under UNSCR 1970) this opportunity had been lost – at least for the time being.

Once the military route is chosen clarity of objectives becomes paramount. President Obama has insisted that given the terms of Resolution 1973 the political objective for the military intervention cannot be the overthrow of Gaddafi. However both Obama and David Cameron have attempted to square the circle by arguing that Gaddafi’s departure would be a good thing and that this is, in that sense, a separate political objective. This immediately raises the question of whether it is possible to claim impartiality if one has an avowed preference for the victory of one side.

If Gaddafi goes quickly this will cease to be an issue; a new UN Resolution will doubtless authorise international support for the rebuilding of Libya both politically and economically. But if there is a protracted conflict NATO/the coalition’s position will become more complicated and some hard choices will have to be made: to stay within the terms of UNSCR 1973; to seek a new Resolution authorising some form of ground intervention; or to go it alone without UN cover. This dilemma is already visible in debates about whether to arm the opposition forces; the coalition is arguing that this might be justified for defensive purposes, but by implication not offensive ones – but who would determine the difference?

At this point one returns to the question of whether or not we are at war. Armed conflict is no less terrible for those involved just because we choose to give it another name. And it is not good for our troops if they are fighting a war while we pretend they are not. But the problem is that to be at war you have to have an enemy whom you are seeking to defeat, which is just what Obama and Cameron do not want to admit. If you are not prepared to be clear about this you are forced to hide behind equivocation and double-speak. Perhaps it is better to do what you believe to be right and take the political flak? As long as you get it right, of course, as Messrs Blair and Bush might ruefully admit. In this case that could mean conceding we are at war with Gaddafi, even though that would limit further the available foreign policy responses to the crisis.

An instructive parallel is with Tanzania’s intervention in Uganda as long ago as 1979. Initially this was to repel an invasion of Tanzania by Ugandan President Idi Amin’s forces, but the political objective subsequently became Amin’s removal from power. Tanzania’s President, Julius Nyerere, nearly bankrupted his country in the process of achieving this. He received no international support, neither from Africa nor the UN, but everyone was heartily relieved when he succeeded. At the time Amin was a political pariah with no friends or supporters – bar one, who furnished him with significant quantities of troops and military equipment that nearly swung the war in his favour. His name? Muammar Gaddafi.


United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970 – 26th February 2011

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 – 17th March 2011

Remarks by President Obama in Address to the Nation on Libya – 28th March 2011