There is a difference between war and humanitarian intervention, or as I prefer to call it, a human security intervention. The current attacks on Libya, like the NATO air strikes over Yugoslavia in 1999, are intended for humanitarian ends, the protection of civilians but the means are those of war. Certainly the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 was a huge achievement just in time to prevent Gaddafi forces from overrunning Benghazi. The resolution called on member states and regional organizations to ‘take all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory’.
But are military attacks from the air an appropriate means? As Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League and potential candidate for Egyptian President, put it (even though he later retracted): ‘What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of a no-fly zone. What we want is the protection of civilians not the bombardment of more civilians.’
The risks of war are several. First, people get killed - mostly soldiers like those on the road to Benghazi, but also those very people who are supposed to be protected - namely civilians, however hard western forces try to be precise. So far there have been no substantiated reports of civilian casualties although plenty of soldiers have been killed in air attacks on Gaddafi forces. Secondly, infrastructure is likely to be damaged, greatly increasing material hardship. And thirdly, war is always polarising, constructing extreme versions of ‘we’ and ‘them’. The spectacle of dramatic air strikes with hundreds of cruise missiles and advanced aircraft is bound to galvanise the population in Tripoli behind Gaddafi. The fact that these attacks are reminiscent of the 1986 air strikes help to give substance to Gaddafi’s anti-imperialist narrative.
Broadly speaking, there are three possible scenarios of what might happen. The best scenario is that Gaddafi is removed and democracy is established. This could happen as a result of continued rebel advances and the implosion of the Gaddafi camp. The difficulty is that the attacks themselves, whether by western forces or by rebels, tend to strengthen the cohesion of Gaddafi supporters. Forceful regime change tends to make democratic processes harder to achieve because of the political divisions among the population. A second probably more likely scenario is a freezing of the current division between east and west Libya with occasional skirmishes between the two.
And the third scenario which could be the result of both of the first two scenarios is, as in Iraq, a protracted ‘new war’. The regime is weak and the rebels lack state infrastructure. Gaddafi loyalists are likely to form a backbone of any future insurgency. Already the country is awash with arms. Criminals have been released from gaols. Oil can be used to finance unscrupulous networks and gangs who profit from chaos through smuggling, hostage-taking and the like. For the moment, the revolution of ordinary people who only want freedom and honesty has sidelined the extremists. But, as the confrontation drags on, the revolt is bound to drift further and further away from its civic origins. Gaddafi’s claim that Al-Qaeda would benefit from the revolt could become self-fulfilling as the disorder typical of failed states provides an entrée for a range of fanatical political agendas.
Human security intervention
So what would have been a human security intervention? From a human security perspective, the appropriate course of action is to protect civilians throughout Libya and guarantee their right to peaceful protest. The first task should have been to declare Benghazi and the liberated areas a UN Protected Area or safe haven. International peace-keepers would have had to be deployed to help protect the liberated areas. Humanitarian and reconstruction assistance and support for a democratic political process would also have to be provided so that the liberated areas could provide poles of attraction for other parts of the country. The peace-keepers would defend the protected areas robustly; they would not attack Gaddafi forces but, given the opportunity, they would try to arrest those indicted by the ICC. They would, of course, need air protection and indeed what has happened already helps to provide conditions for a safe haven. But this is different from relying on military attacks from the air alone.
It is true that the Security Council Resolution excludes ‘foreign occupation forces’ and the rebels themselves have said that they do not want foreign occupation. But the deployment of international peacekeepers, both military, police and civilians, especially if they were drawn from Arab and Africans countries as well as Europe and America, could not be construed as such. The aim would be to damp down violence so that protests can be peaceful rather than to support one side militarily creating the conditions for long term violence.
One argument against this approach is that it would have led to the second scenario – freezing the conflict rather than overthrowing Gaddafi. But in the end the prospects for democracy depend on whether the rebels can mobilise support politically throughout Libya. This is much more likely if violence can be damped down. The problem with the military approach is that it entrenches division and makes political victory more difficult. If the Gaddafi regime is overthrown by force, the division is likely to persist, leading to a ‘new war’ rather than democracy.
Of course, safe havens bring back memories of Srebrenica, where the UN failed to defend a safe haven and 8000 men and boys were massacred. The lesson of Srebrenica is not, however, that safe havens were a bad idea. It is that safe havens need to be defended properly. If we are to address ‘new wars’ in the future, the UN needs to have sufficient capabilities to be able to provide human security – to protect individuals and the communities in which they live. This means large scale human security capabilities consisting of military, civilian and police personnel, led by a civilian and available to the United Nations. Such capabilities would also require capabilities for air support and maritime transport but tailored to human security needs, rather than expensive systems designed for traditional military contingencies.
Building human security capabilities is an urgent task not only for Libya but other regions of the world like Cote d’Ivoire or Somalia of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Military leaders often make the point that we need the ‘high end’ war-fighting equipment that is a legacy of the Cold War. They argue that it can be used for other contingencies. But quite apart from the cost of such equipment, time and again our knee jerk reaction to crisis is air strikes because that is what we have the capability to do.
The tragic events unfolding in Libya today represent a pivotal historic moment. People and rulers across the region are following, with bated breath, the news of heroism and savagery trickling out of Libya as well as the world’s reactions to them. If the world gets this wrong, there are real risks that a ‘new war’ on Europe’s doorsteps could embolden counter-revolutionary groups in Tunisia and Egypt, not to mention Bahrein and Yemen. There is a growing security gap that arises from the inappropriateness of our capabilities to meet contemporary security needs be they ‘new wars’, terrorism, piracy or natural disasters like the Japanese earthquake. Our preoccupation with classic military means is undermining our capacity to address growing insecurity and this can only get worse as economic crisis and climate change exacerbate social tensions.