International intervention and its humanitarian consequences in Libya and beyond: an unresolved issue

Although the intervention in Libya has had some positive effects on the country it finds itself in a humanitarian crisis. Impunity and crimes against humanity occur, many people are displaced and conflict has spilled over to neighbouring countries. A more developed and broader humanitarian intervention in Libya is required

Alvaro Mellado Dominguez Tom Pitt-Rashid
11 May 2012

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL)  is a political UN mission composing of 65 international staff who are bestowed with the responsibility to assist the new Libyan government in establishing the rule of law. This mission has major challenges ahead. To begin with, some commentators approaching the Libyan scenario from a humanitarian perspective have questioned the real intention behind this multilateral intervention. Rony Brauman (a founder of Medicins Sans Frontiers) called this international intervention a “humanitarian coup d’etat ”. For him - asking “what is the right for Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime?”- it was a familiar form of international aggression, taking cover under the responsibility to protect doctrine. The military intervention aimed at an objective beyond the mere protection of civilians. Amnesty International reported that NATO had bombed civilian buildings  and, as a result, directly caused civilian casualties.  The question posed is clear – was the reason for military action the protection of civilians or was this only the justification used for overthrowing a regime? Meanwhile, this international intervention has had internal and external humanitarian consequences that still remain unresolved.

Internal displacement

Internal displacement has occurred since the beginning of the Libyan crisis. People were displaced previous to the intervention as a result of attacks on the civilian population by Gaddafi’s forces. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued three arrest warrants  to Gaddafi and two of his sons. Since then, UNHCR reported  in February 2012 that 459,047 internally displaced persons had returned to their homes. However, displacement persisted after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. There are still an estimated 65,000  to 90,000  internally displaced people in Libya. These figures are mostly composed of the Tawergha and Mesheshiya ethnic groups, sub-Saharan Africans and suspected loyalists to the Gaddafi regime. They are unable to return to their homes according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Resolution 1973 from the UN Security Council, issued in 2011, established the legal basis for a no-fly zone over Libya and the protection of civilians with all the necessary means except a foreign occupation force. However, the commitments to protect civilians made by the Security Council in that resolution remain unfulfilled. If social tensions increase again as a result of attacks by armed militias, the situation for these displaced people could evolve into another humanitarian crisis. The thuwar, or anti-Gaddafi militias, have tortured, killed or threatened specific ethnic groups close to Gaddafi after the fall of his regime. The UN Human Rights Council has already categorised these incidents as war crimes and crimes against humanity in March 2012. The International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that there were an estimated 100-300 thuwars. The transitional government is yet to exert its control over these groups. Now, some thuwars represent a threat against humanity. MSF has suspended part of its operations, due to the emergence of detainees who had been subjected to torture after receiving medical help from this organisation in Misrata. Crimes against humanity continue to be a problem in Libya.

The current response of the international community is not appropriate to ensure the complete implementation of resolution 1973. This resolution established the legal basis for an arms embargo, for freezing the assets and imposing a travel ban on key members of the former regime. However, the opposition did not have the same restrictions placed on them by the international community. The resolution was effective in empowering one side of the conflict whilst reducing the capacities of the other. International intervention facilitated the creation of an environment unable to ensure the security of the whole population – it does not provide the mechanisms necessary to prevent crimes against humanity. Therefore, by any criteria, the current approach is inadequate in its quest to protect civilians.

External displacements

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were around 1.5 to 2 million foreigners  from other parts of Africa and Asia in Libya before the beginning of the crisis. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) had evacuated more than 143000 people of 50 different nationalities by June 30, 2011. Some of these people’s countries of origin, such as the Philippines,  have requested funds to support these returnees. Bangladeshi repatriates, due to the Libyan crisis, have benefited from the support of the World Bank program for returnees. The international community is trying to offer support to those people effected.

However, this assistance has not been as consistent as it should be. Migrant boats escaping the crisis did not receive assistance from two NATO ships  and lives were lost as a result of this inaction. This denial of humanitarian assistance during a conflict directly contravenes international humanitarian law. This did not go unnoticed. The international response to the Libyan crisis does not have to rely only on the response of governments or international institutions. In May 2011, MSF sent a letter  to the heads of European states demanding more responsibility for the refugees coming by sea. The lobby that emanates from global civil society can serve as a mechanism by which international institutions and governments are held to account. It is vital that international civil society actively demands coherence in the application of the responsibility to protect, to prevent this valuable doctrine from becoming a ‘Trojan horse’ for narrow vested interests.

Displacement has also had an impact on food security in a region which already has enough problems of this kind. The governments of Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania all declared national crises  in December 2011. IOM  had already registered 780 returnees in Mauritania, 11,230 in Mali, 82,433 in Chad and 95,760 in Niger by December 2011. There have been multiple consequences arising from the arrival of returnees en masse. Firstly, the reduction of remittances reduces the host community's capacity to supply food. IOM estimated that each returnee’s remittance supported seven individuals in their home country. Secondly, the number of people in need of food increases whilst the ability to adapt food production to cope with the new demands is yet to surface. Thirdly, the arrival of returnees increases the number of people competing for resources and employment. In Mauritania, recent returnees have regularly protested for employment and more support. In this way, the negative humanitarian impact of the Libyan crisis has spread to other countries in the Sahel region. 

The Security Council did an assessment of the impact of the Libyan crisis in the Sahel region in December 2011. The proliferation of arms in Libya  has spilled over into neighbouring countries. This has become a major consideration, given the deterioration of the situation concerning the Tuaregs' insurgency in Mali, as well as the buffering of the armed resources of terrorist networks and organized crime networks in the region. The European Union (EU) is also concerned at the spill over of the Libyan crisis for security in the Sahel region: the deterioration of the food crisis; the coup d’état in Mali; crime and terrorism. The EU has proclaimed itself committed to reinforcing its support for security and development in the region.

The Security Council had no plan to alleviate the potential damage in the Sahel region occurring as a result of international military intervention in Libya. The regional impacts of the Libyan crisis raise serious questions around the limitations of a military interventionist strategy as a means of conflict resolution. A stronger regional non-military humanitarian approach must be put in place to manage the regional consequences of a conflict.


Humanitarian needs have not always been made a priority for action by the international community. Not all types of governmental humanitarian interventions were put on the table when the Libyan crisis occurred. Oliver Ramsbotham and Tom Woodhouse have proposed a typology of governmental humanitarian interventions, including coercive and non-coercive humanitarian intervention, with or without military means. Seen agaiunst this range of options, humanitarian intervention which mixes coercive military and non-military means at the beginning of the conflict with UNSMIL's current non-coercive non-military means strategy clearly does not bring about the end of the humanitarian crisis. The current displaced people still need protection. Civilians have been under attack not only from domestic parties, locally and directly involved in the conflict, but also from NATO. The protection of civilians seems to be a matter of luck - to be in the right place at the right time is essential for survival. International humanitarian intervention has had some positive effects but it would be false to say it has been broadly effective. The humanitarian crisis continues to exist.

The strategy pursued by the Security Council has exacerbated other humanitarian crises in the region whilst failing to resolve the situation in Libya. It would have been prudent to fully consider the consequences of military intervention before implementing it. A military intervention needs to be able to contain all the armed sides of the conflict and not only one.The numerous problems of civilian protection, establishment of the rule of law, control of all the different armed groups, displacement and stopping crimes against humanity can overwhelm the current government and the team of UNSMIL. There are no sufficiently robust mechanisms in place in Libya currently capable of dealing with such a multitude of problems.

International civil society has occupied different roles during this conflict. Providing humanitarian assistance and lobbying for the respect and the dignity of the population have been major achievements. However, in a situation which continues to be unstable, an active international civil society needs to advocate for fully capable, versatile protection mechanisms both for the international institutions and the individual governments involved. A more developed, well considered form of humanitarian intervention is still urgently waiting to be introduced into the Libyan crisis - in the midst of a deteriorating humanitarian situation.

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