The news that NATO units apparently ignored the cries for help of 72 passengers on a boat from Tripoli should dispel any doubts about the depth of the alliance’s commitment to civilian protection in Libya. The Western leaders who sold military intervention to their electorates and UN colleagues as the moral response to the plight of Libya’s people are shown, once again, to have a highly selective sense of ethical responsibility.
This is just the latest example of the ruthlessness of realpolitik in shaping responses to international conflict and human suffering. Despite a brief flurry of interest by UK politicians in the late nineties, any commitment to systematically relating ethics to foreign policy is long gone. The hideous events of September 2001 encouraged some Western political leaders to adopt a posture of moral superiority which, paradoxically, they think relieves them of all further need to conform to existing legal and moral norms of international conduct, let alone any more exacting standards. The spurious reasons adduced for the shameful wars on Afghanistan and Iraq signalled a new phase of the arbitrary exercise of military power by those best placed to use it and, unsurprisingly, have not made the world a safer place but fuelled further violence.
The irony of events in the Middle East and North Africa this spring is that they began with an inspiring display of the power of unarmed, courageous and determined people to stand up to the violence of tyranny. It is worth noting that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which remained to a remarkable degree nonviolent, were the most successful in winning over those who might have been expected to mete out violence against them. It is equally remarkable and ironic that it was in the case where people-power quickly took a violent form, and morphed into a civil war, that the West decided to ‘intervene’ militarily to ‘protect civilians’.
Despite frequent references, by politicians as well as journalists, to the triumphs of nonviolence in the former Soviet empire, and the use of the term people power that became current at the time of President Marcos’s removal from power in the Philippines, it seems that nonviolent power is quickly forgotten when the tried, tested and endlessly catastrophic option of violence re-presents itself to Western powers. Nonviolence is what we applaud. Violence is what we do.
It was presented as a moral imperative that we should protect the Libyan people against the monster Gaddafi who had renounced his nuclear weapons programme and been rewarded by the physical and metaphorical embrace of Western leaders. The idea of a no fly zone was used to sell the idea domestically and internationally. And who could object to that? But the legacy of two months of relentless bombing – sometimes involving more than 150 bombing missions a day – suggests that this is not a believable or effective means of protection for anyone. While the people of Benghazi may have escaped the brunt of Gaddafi´s firepower, the people of Misrata continue to endure the daily horror of life on the frontline. Presumably the argument goes that those who appear to support Gaddafi do so out of fear. Pity the poor souls who drove the tanks, or lived in or near the buildings so satisfactorily flattened by NATO bombs.
If the object was really to save lives and even to achieve some measure of democracy, the most constructive role that could have been offered from outside (not necessarily by the West) would have been that of intermediary, to broker a ceasefire and talks between ‘rebels’ and regime. The Gaddafi regime´s recent decision to accept the presence of UN mission, which withdrew for security reasons following the reactions to NATO´s killing of members of Gaddafi´s family, suggests that it may not have been inconceivable to negotiate the presence of an international observer mission, or possibly even a peacekeeping mission, which could have a substantial impact on the use of violence by both sides. But once airstrikes took precedence as the dominant form of intervention, the conflict has escalated in ways that make all of these options much harder to realise. Diplomatic initiatives by the African Union and Turkey have been undermined by Western insistence on dictating the terms of any settlement. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague´s declaration in a BBC interview “we will know a ceasefire when we see one”, suggests either that he has no appreciation of the requirements of monitoring such a development, or, perhaps more worryingly, that the West will only accept a ceasefire when it judges that its strategic interests have been militarily secured.
In the case of the UK’s role in the Libyan campaign, it is also hard to avoid the conclusion that one key reason for the leading role taken by Britain in pushing through the UN resolution was our leaders’ need to recover from the earlier embarrassment caused by our Prime Minister’s visit to the Middle East with an entourage of arms dealers, drawing attention to our real role in arming the region’s despots. Moreover, David Cameron is a relatively new Prime Minister with very limited foreign policy experience, and our political leaders have long regarded taking the country into war as the best way of showing they have made the grade.
As philosopher Bruno Bettelheim has been paraphrased: “Violence is the behaviour of someone incapable of imagining other solutions to the problem at hand”. Tragically, it seems that our political leaders suffer that incapacity. With overwhelming parliamentary support for British military action in Libya, it seems that war is our preferred method of operation.
The question that is almost too obvious to ask is why in a world of human rights violations, some on a massive scale, why Libya was singled out for this form of ‘humanitarian intervention’. For instance, the killings in Cote d’Ivoire were at their height as the raids were getting underway, and in Zimbabwe the suffering of the people goes relentlessly on. It seems that in those cases the lure of military involvement – or indeed investing genuine effort in any other strategy to protect civilians – has proved resistible. But those countries do not have the vast oil reserves and consequent strategic importance that are the affliction of the peoples of the Middle East. So also the government of oil-rich Azerbaijan continues to escape the international opprobrium it deserves for its dismal record of human rights violations.
The last month has seen two further dramatic examples of the Western policy of “do as we say but not as we do”. On Saturday April 29th NATO killed Gaddafi’s son and three of his grandchildren in the latest attempt to assassinate him under the rubric of civilian protection. No words of compassion escaped the lips of any politician in the West. Then on Monday May 2nd the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing was trumpeted to the world. He was unarmed but gunned down. Others, including his wife and another woman, were wounded or killed. President Obama is seen to have triumphed. The honour of the US has been restored.
It is understandable that those close to the people who died in the September 11th atrocities are glad that bin Laden is dead, but that does not make these actions lawful or right. And it will not make us safe from terrorism, any more than the countries we choose to assault are safe from the West’s easy recourse to bombs and drones - the means of distance assassination that is growing in popularity, regardless of its record of ‘collateral damage’.
If we wish to add to human security we must begin to play by the rules we lay down for others. Turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the plight of civilians stranded at sea is not an option. But more than that, in view of the challenges that confront humanity we must learn to deal with each other nonviolently and to cooperate, or humanity will be overwhelmed by the threats that confront it. Is it too much to hope that recognition of our common existential crisis will be the necessary catalyst for a radically different understanding of what it is to be human?