Critiquing Humanitarian intervention in Libya

In 2011, Libya became one of the countries that were quickly impacted by the Arab Spring. Yet, it has been going through a different path than its neighbours Egypt and Tunisia that have largely succeeded in their revolutions. As a result of the dire humanitarian situation in Libya in 2011, the UN Security Council decided to implement multilateral humanitarian military intervention.

Before the application of humanitarian intervention, one has to make detailed calculations and evaluation of the necessity of intervention. The legality of humanitarian intervention is a complex question: does sovereignty rule out intervention in order not to breach territorial integrity? Or does the international community have the responsibility to avoid gross and systematic human rights violations? Regarding sovereignty, “the legal rub of humanitarian intervention is the United Nations Charter, the foundational document of international law whose core principles are sovereignty and non-intervention” (Cronogue, 129).

The implementation of humanitarian intervention in Libya was arguably based on the prominent model of: the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. It is argued that “the concept of R2P consists of three elements: the responsibility to prevent a population from suffering serious harm, the responsibility to react if such harm occurs, and the responsibility to rebuild after an intervention” (Gowers, 597). The R2P implies a collective international responsibility “exercisable by the Security Council authorizing military intervention as a last resort, in the event of genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing and serious violations of humanitarian law which sovereign governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent” (Background Information on the Responsibility to protect, United Nations). “President Barack Obama—along with NATO—claimed that military action was necessary in order to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi, where Qaddafi’s forces had surrounded a defenseless population” (Gillin, Libya Is Yet Another Reason to Be Wary of Humanitarian Interventions). However, the intervention implied the overthrowing of the leader Qaddafi who targeted civilian protesters, yet, the overthrowing of a government is not legally justified under international law, but is rather considered political. The timing was ideal to exercise humanitarian intervention as “leaders in the Middle East were still reeling from the Arab Spring” (Patrick, Libya and the future of Humanitarian intervention). The Libyan case was illustrated as “a textbook illustration justifying R2P principles, but its implementation also demonstrated the need for legitimacy criteria to guide decisions on authorizing and overseeing international military intervention” (Thakur, 61).

Libya has been perceived as a “failed” state that lacks the ability to protect its own citizens. Since Libya is considered as a “failed” state, the responsibility is seen to be extended to the international community. Although, the use of force in “failed” states is very debatable, humanitarian intervention seems to have been the first option in Libya. Therefore, the Security Council issued Resolution 1970 (2011), which underscored “the gross and systematic violation of human rights, including the repression of peaceful demonstrators, expressing deep concern at the deaths of civilians, and rejecting unequivocally the incitement to hostility and violence against the civilian population made from the highest level of the Libyan government” (Resolution 1970). It is also added in the Resolution 1970 that “the widespread and systematic attacks currently taking place in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity” (Resolution 1970). The Resolution stressed the significant responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect and respect its population. The Security Council accompanied Resolution 1970 with the Resolution 1973 that permitted Member States to legitimately take “all necessary measures” in carrying out humanitarian intervention in protecting civilians (Resolution 1973).

Humanitarian interventions are very expensive and their consequences cannot be predicted.  However, humanitarian intervention is a significant instrument that is “claimed” to protect people and punish perpetrators of human rights violations. Humanitarian intervention does not seem to be a “pure tool” that aims to really save lives as it is highlighted that “the United States will remain selective about humanitarian intervention, because it must balance the goal of preventing suffering with other interests and commitments” (Patrick, ‘Libya and the future of Humanitarian intervention’). Actually, the United States always used the arguments of establishing democracy and eliminating human rights violations as a basis for humanitarian intervention. In the case of Libya, it seems that economic interests, more specifically oil reserves were the real interests of the United States. This intervention is reminiscent of the Iraq war in 2003. Moreover, the geographical location of Libya makes it strategically beneficial in the sense that it allows access to Africa.

The United Nations has justified multilateral, UN-authorized humanitarian intervention according to Article 39 of the UN Charter, which states that “the Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security”. Because this Article is broad and vague, the UN Charter does not contain any clear conditions for collective action. Nonetheless, it has been argued that humanitarian intervention goes against Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter, which stipulates that: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”. Furthermore, the UN Charter underlines in Article 2 (7) that: “nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter”. However, when the situation reaches a perceived “high peak”, the Security Council gives itself the power to employ the humanitarian intervention with the use of Article 39.

The humanitarian intervention in Libya did in fact create a new “failed state”. The humanitarian intervention strategy was actually proven in the Libyan case as a total failure. The presence of a two rival governments makes the position of the country weaker. The existence and role of the militias including some Islamist extremists and ISIS over the country weakens the economic situation due to the constant contest over oil revenues. The creation of these Islamist extremists was the outcome of the continuous sustainment by the West aiming to succeed in the process of regime change. Security cannot be established due to absence of an army and an undrafted constitution. The intervention did not imply any kind of a process of active rebuilding aiming to put Libya on its feet. It is questionable whether the Libyan intervention was really an intervention to protect the population or rather another strategy to remove a political leader who constantly went against the West on the political, social and economic levels. The NATO intervention has succeeded in showing that it was a failure due to the presence of violence after the action. This could be seen with the increased number of deaths and human rights violations. R2P in the Libyan case did not include any kind of protection but rather a kind of violence and humiliation of civilians. Violence has spread all over the country. Saving lives is simply a justification to attack one nation’s territory and breach its sovereignty.

Humanitarian interventions are simply “lies”. They can never be trusted due to the constant hidden goals. Humanitarian interventions cannot function because they produce more negative consequences than good ones and this could clearly be seen in the Libyan case as mentioned above. There is no “pure” behavior of a humanitarian intervention. One has to mention the tremendous influence and control of the United States (U.S) over NATO’s actions. The U.S under NATO’s umbrella looks for its own benefits by trying to act as the “saviors”. Moreover, the humanitarian intervention does not offer any solutions. In other words, the intervention does not try to solve the causes of the conflict or deal with its consequences. If humanitarian intervention in Libya was really “pure”, then the employment of military action was not required. The fact that the use of force was included in the intervention breaches the whole aim and purpose of intervention as it continuously violates human rights.


3 thoughts on “Critiquing Humanitarian intervention in Libya

  1. omneyamakhlouf April 20, 2015 / 3:33 pm

    Hoda, I especially enjoyed reading your blog post because it reveals very honestly what Humanitarian Intervention actually is! It also shows the sad truth that international law, acting with the facade of an unbiased neutral entity, can actually authorize a very politicized strategy. Well done, Hoda!

    To comment on the Security Council resolutions, which you so kindly quoted, there are several issues that must be considered. In general, what I find shocking about Security Council resolutions regarding humanitarian intervention is that these resolutions breach territorial integrity and sovereignty when they authorize military intervention under the banner of humanitarian aid. One can argue that there are exceptions in international law that should be deployed in dire situations such as the Libyan case, but it is concretely obvious that this case is not one of pure humanitarian intervention, as you stated. Furthermore, this creates a perpetuation of state practice, which may very well turn into customary law allowing for the breach of territorial integrity under banners of whatever you like! R2P, humanitarian intervention, maintaining international peace and security, you name it.

    This is an extremely hypocritical act on the part of the Security Council for several reasons: (1) they are selective about when it is necessary to intervene. So for example their failure to intervene in Rwanda was because it was not in the interest of those who could intervene (mainly the Powers). But in Libya, when the opportunity showed itself, they grasped at it with their claws and teeth. (2) The intervention in Libya was clearly a politicized act let by the US for several reasons (which you also mentioned) in addition to the US making a bold statement to Russia, among its economic motives. How is it that the Security Council was not questioned for authorizing a clearly political motive? But then again, who would question the Security Council? (3) If the situation were reversed, and one of the states being intervened in was one of the P5 or one of the NATO members, this would be, in the eyes of the Power, a breach of territorial integrity that cannot be excused even if it was authorized by the Security Council. It could even go as far as claiming the unlawful use of force. This double standard in international law makes us wonder how the world is governed by such a biased framework.

    Furthermore, the issue of breaching sovereignty by the Security Council is a peculiar one. International law cannot create a framework where the United Nations can directly impede the sovereignty or the territorial integrity of a Member State, or else none of them would become members (if not drop out of the UN altogether)! Article 2(7) had to be there in order for the UN to be able to gather the states of the world together to form an organization. But the UN decided also to incorporate Article 39 in the Charter, which theoretically negates a large portion of the Charter because the Security Council has “deemed it necessary” to intervene. The use of Article 39 in this case violates an immense amount of guarantees to Member States regarding their domestic affairs, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the like. But, why has no one objected to this? They’ve laid it down under the banner of humanitarian intervention to make Member States succumb to the idea that they’re saving the Libyan people. This is a classic political tactic that has been so imbedded into international law that people think this is the norm. The general international community has turned a blind eye to the politicization of international law in matters pertaining to humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian intervention is not even a legitimate doctrine under international law, but in itself has been created by political motives.

    On another note, your point about “hidden goals” – I’ll have to disagree with the terminology… They’re not hidden! They’re completely and utterly blatant. It is unbelievably obvious as to why NATO decided to pursue humanitarian intervention in Libya. There are countless goals that can be listed – all of which are political, economic, social, and military goals, as you’ve mentioned.

    These are just some ideas I had that I thought were worth elaborating on – although they are much more jurisprudential than they are legal – but all in all, it was a very interesting read and I’m glad you truly stated the obvious that people are generally not stating about humanitarian intervention! Wonderful job!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sara Hassan May 6, 2015 / 7:45 pm

    Huda, you really did a good job in tackling the problematic humanitarian intervention in Libya in 2011. Your post entails brilliant ideas that worth analyzing while assessing the introduction of the concept of humanitarian intervention in international law and its implications.

    Concerning the Libyan case, the SC resolution (1973) has authorized member states “that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations to take all the necessary measures” in order to protect civilians. Although the NATO which falls under the “regional organizations” meets the permissible description of authorized member states, it goes far beyond its mandate since it toppled President Gaddafi, instead of protecting civilians. One can argue that toppling the regime is considered one of the measures to protect the civilians. Here raises the problem with such an open ended authorization of the SC to member states and how it paves the way for flexible interpretations and state’s manipulation of its language.

    Humanitarian intervention as internationally introduced in international law resembles a recent shift in the strict application of non- interference in the internal affairs principle to a more flexible one. A more blurred boundary between national and international issues has come to surface when an issue touches grave human rights violations.

    However, this shift did not come out of that the world became more sensible to human rights after a history full of bloody wars, but there are other reasons for such shift. This shift towards humanitarian intervention is based on escaping the veto problem which reflects the conflicting interests of the five permanent members. In addition, it opens a back door for avoiding the strict requirements of the self defence which require occurrence of armed attack or an imminent threat of armed attack and at the same time restricts the reply by a state to be necessary and proportionate.

    I agree with you that the Libyan case is a failure model of humanitarian intervention, especially concerning state building as one of the three main pillars of the alleged R2P. However, I see the the repercussions of such failure is more important to shed the light on. For example, there are no investigations for the crimes committed during the intervention by the NATO which include killing civilians. Furthermore, there is no international accountability system for prosecuting states or individuals especially when they introduce themselves as immune saviors. Moreover, there is no fixed standard of these saviors, which gets us back to the point you mentioned earlier about the bias and double standards. Finally, introducing the inevitability of the military version of humanitarian aid encompasses accepting the international community of all the implications of such intervention under the banner of necessity combined by a moral imperative this is where any massacre does not need to be further justified.
    Good luck in your future blog posts.


  3. Hakimi Abdul Jabar October 13, 2016 / 11:40 pm

    I had just completed a Harvard Humanitarian Response Course in which one of the lecturers was Claude Bruderlein of Harvard University & the ICRC. I am further intrigued by your article.

    What roles do humanitarian actors guided by well-enshrined humanitarian principles & approaches play pursuant to Art. 33 UNC & the efficacy of such?

    In relation to the abovementioned case scenario, what roles do humanitarian principles & approaches play pursuant to Art. 33 of the UNC in which the parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.

    What are the efficacies of such an approach?

    Secondly, pursuant to Justice Tanaka’s dissenting opinion in the South West Africa cases (1966) ICJ Reports p.298, in which he had stated that the protection of human rights belong to the jus cogens, anyone taking into account the strength of such a highly-respected opinion, in providing humanitarian assistance of the basic necessities essential for the very existence of human life, e.g. food, water, medical supplies, etc., in accordance with the well-enshrined humanitatian principles, be automatically absolved from negative repercussions of intervention/interference as the provision of such humanitarian aid be considered peremptory norms towards the protection of human rights and its sustenance?

    Thank you.


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