The Libyan crisis sparked a controversy regarding humanitarian intervention in the context of Responsibility to protect (R2P). The African Union (AU) described it as an African problem; the French and Italians described it as a Mediterranean problem; the British and the Americans described it as an international problem; while the Arab League felt that it was a “spill over Arab” problem. All of the above are correct to some extent.
However, whether for good or bad, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorization to impose a no-fly zone over Libya was an essential part of the international response to the unfolding political crisis in Libya. The AU’s response to the crisis was perceived as weak, regardless of the fact that it had tabled its African Roadmap before UNSC Resolution 1973 was implemented.
Another problem the AU confronted was that although Gaddafi agreed to participate, the rebels were not too eager to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The AU wanted, at all costs, to prevent internal conflict from spreading. This explains why the AU constantly emphasized that only diplomacy and dialogue could resolve the political standoff.
Years after Hillary Clinton’s famous remarks, “We came, we saw, he died,” many policymakers in the AU and the supposedly dying Arab League are now left with the burden of reconstructing Libya. The events in post-Gaddafi era suggest that Libya runs the risk of being another Somalia — a complete disaster that is already acting as breeding place for extremism that ultimately destabilizes the region.
The world’s attention has been focused on the spread of ISIL while Libya lies in ruin, tearing itself apart because of a legitimacy crisis. Airports and hospitals lie in smoking ruins, diplomats were evacuated and the once vibrant civil society has been sidelined and silenced through a spate of assassinations. A contest between the cities of Misrata and Zintan presents a situation where all parties are going for the mantle of legitimacy in a society devoid of vibrant democratic institutions.
The conundrum is that all camps claim legitimacy and authority over the state. These conflicts and lack of workable solutions in the rampaged and troubled North African country are a threat to regional security.
As the situation deteriorated with massive bombing operations raining in Benghazi, Libya increasingly became a vacuum for foreign meddling. The battle conflict between anti-Islamists and Islamist groups for Benghazi and Tripoli was interwoven with local conflicts. This was not the case during Gaddafi’s era — he managed to act as a buffer zone and a hegemonic force that eliminated and suppressed any instance of religious and ethnic conflict. The international community had a black and white approach to the Libyan situation, which was a symptom of the regional quagmire.
This was a stubborn approach, with a single goal of eliminating the Gaddafi regime but with no sustainable governance and reconstruction policy. This approach was bound to fail and was out of touch with reality on the ground. This approach exacerbated the situation as opposed to ameliorating it. There has been mushrooming of many non-state actors in Libya and battles and bombings between militia groups.
UNSC’s application of R2P in Libya was applied within the scope and faith of R2P. However, the implementation of Resolution 1973 by NATO was incompatible with R2P. It went further than its civilian protection mandate and instead embarked on regime change mission. This backfired and led to lack of trust in R2P. If only the 1973 resolution was not implemented by NATO, Libya could have been a different place.
NATO’s war on Libya was declared as a humanitarian intervention-bombing in the name of saving lives. Attempts for diplomacy by the AU were stifled and any possibility of peace talks was subverted. Libya was barred from representing itself at the UN where shadowy NGOs and human rights groups had leeway to present information that served as prerequisite for bombing Libya in the name of democracy. The war on Libya was not about human rights protection.
Whatever the reason for toppling Gaddafi, it is clear that once a stable, prosperous Libya lies in ruins and there is prolonged civil unrest. Years after Western intervention, the so-called international community has once again managed to create a failed state, and still the NATO-led alliance refuses to admit its Libyan mistake. Libya is now run by extremist militias, the parliament agrees on little and the interim government has no army to enforce security let alone impose policies.
Many Libyans who were duped into trusting Western intervention now have to live unbearably, with the society descending into a country run by Islamists, tribal leaders and militias all jostling for positions and authority. The future of Libya remains uncertain. There is a possibility of partition based on ethnic and regional enmities, and this will likely produce a Somali-like manner where meaningful democracy and sustainable economic development are impossible. This kind of a failed state will become a safe haven for terrorism and sanctuary for violence.
The West poked a beehive when it bombed Libya. It created a state where people are left with no sense of hope for a better future. If the war on Libya was in compliance with R2P and driven by the need to protect civilians, the West should have proactively helped Libya to stabilize and rebuild. The country has been left to wither away, which raises the question: was the Libyan intervention really about protecting civilians or just another geopolitical expansionist campaign?
Libya will need a strong leader to restore order and security in the society because when security is at stake human rights take a back seat. My argument here is in favor of a stable military government in Libya or a civilian government with strong support from securocrats, even though the international community might not fancy such.