The UN authorised No-Fly Zone, as an initiative first endorsed by the Arab League, was meant to be a gesture by the international community to stop Gaddafi and his supporters - and by extension any other government that is contemplating a similar response - from killing civilians and violating human rights in order to cling to power. But first and foremost it was intended to protect civilians, calling on governments’ ‘responsibility to protect’. The Libyan national army had been deployed, and air raids had been indiscriminately conducted against protesting civilians. According to the International Crisis Group, Muammar Gaddafi said “he would rather die a martyr than to step down, and called on his supporters to attack and ‘cleanse Libya house by house’ until protestors surrender." The case for intervention could not have been stronger.
Unfortunately, time and time again we fail to recognise that the window for humanitarian intervention is a small one, and existing mechanisms in international politics are too slow to deal with this issue in an effective manner. Much time goes by negotiating, lobbying and garnering support from veto holders in the UN Security Council. Not to mention that UN resolutions, once agreed, tend to be vague and ambiguous, a dangerous mix that can have both advantages as well as many disadvantages for those acting on them. As a result, the current military intervention in Libya could not be further from what it was intended to be.
Western forces have been using cruise missiles and air strikes to attack government targets and disable Gaddafi’s forces. While this may protect civilians, it also provides an advantage to one side of a rapidly evolving crisis: protestors turned armed rebels that are taking cities and oil fields. Thus, if the original objective of the Western intervention was to protect civilians, shouldn’t the rebels also be the target of intervening forces? Protesting civilians become combatants the minute they pick up arms, and thus, if the operation is meant as a humanitarian intervention, then civilians should be protected from all fighting parties. Instead, France, NATO and the US have been talking of arming the rebels (ignoring a UN weapons embargo over Libya) while Britain is providing them with telecommunications equipment. Do we only have a responsibility to protect certain civilians?
The Western intervening forces appear more than willing to undermine both UN resolutions (1970 and 1973) to advance a political agenda that goes beyond the protection of civilians, largely ignoring the initial request by the Arab League of a No-Fly Zone and the establishment of safe zones, and its opposition to the turn the current intervention has taken. While the arms embargo is, technically, aimed specifically at the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and any mercenaries operating under their command, an element of cynicism is needed to understand how arming the rebels can possibly assist in fulfilling the ultimate objective of the latest UN Resolution (1973): the protection of civilians from Gaddafi’s forces. It will take months, numerous negotiations, meetings and statements before our current international mechanisms catch up with the fast developing crisis, and issue a resolution that calls for an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict. Because soon, thanks to Western (and other actors’) weapons and technical assistance, there will be more civilians caught up in the conflict and in need of protection and humanitarian assistance.
In addition, short-sightedness, a dose of improvisation and a complete lack of planning seem to characterise a military intervention that is now blatantly attempting to aid a group of rebels of whom nobody really knows what they want beyond ousting Gaddafi. The situation could end up creating a political vacuum, or worse still, the appearance of an opportunistic successor to Gaddafi that may or may not meet the expectations of the Western intervening forces, and then what? Paul Rogers is right to compare the West’s strategy (or lack thereof) to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sadly, arguments and justifications for the current intervention based on the relevance of the 'responsibility to protect' and the return of the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ Kosovo-style do nothing but hijack a very valid and necessary debate to defend the continuation of the Western tradition of hypocrisy and double standards when it comes to intervention. The international community does not have the right to intervene in the affairs of states for the purpose of pursuing regime change. Claiming to protect civilians or carry out a humanitarian mission in an operation that clearly lacks the impartiality necessary to ensure that both parties to the conflict meet their responsibilities is not exercising a responsibility to protect. The ongoing intervention will set a terrible precedent for the wave of protests taking place elsewhere and it will seriously undermine any prospect of grassroots political reform, with little regard for the civilians caught up in the fighting.