During the non-stop media drama of Hackgate it might be easy to forget that Britain remains engaged in a serious overseas military campaign. The conflict in Libya, which began in March with the approval of UN resolution 1973, has continued unabated since. So far over 5,000 NATO air missions have taken place in the skies above the country.
Last week saw an important – though largely unnoticed – development as Hilary Clinton announced the United States would in future recognise the Transitional National Council (TNC) as the legitimate authority governing Libya.
As the conflict grinds on, serious questions are now being asked about how we became embroiled in the hostilities, whether the justification and evidence for military action was up to scratch, and whether the TNC really is prepared for the spotlight of leadership to be thrust upon them.
In this article I hope to discuss how we ended up involved in this conflict in the first place and perhaps more importantly, where we should go from here.
The Case for Intervention
Since the beginning of the conflict, 18,000 people have fled from Libya, and the latest estimates (from April) suggested that 30,000 people had been killed in the fighting and air assaults. The justification for military intervention was always touted as primarily humanitarian. The great fear being that Gaddafi was plotting genocide against his own people. During the height of the build up to war, television personality Lorraine Kelly proclaimed in The Sun newspaper:
Of all the gut-churning atrocities to come out of Libya, the use of mass rape as a weapon of war is the most horrific.
Over the years despot Gaddafi has been accused of many heinous crimes. But now he has been charged with procuring container loads of Viagra-like pills which are given to his troops so they can rape their victims more “efficiently”.
The thought of civilians being terrorised by troops on drugs who are being positively encouraged to rape is utterly monstrous and chills the blood.
The Daily Mail argued a similar line, as did London Mayor Boris Johnson in the Telegraph:
We cannot sit idly by, as Hillary Clinton put it, while this lunatic massacres his own people, and, frankly, we can be proud of the way our own government has handled the matter. [..] The cause is noble and right, and we are surely bound by our common humanity to help the people of Benghazi.
So what evidence existed that these atrocities were indeed taking place as we were told?
In an article in the Independent last month, Patrick Cockburn reported on investigations conducted by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch:
Human rights organisations have cast doubt on claims of mass rape and other abuses perpetrated by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, which have been widely used to justify Nato’s war in Libya.
Nato leaders, opposition groups and the media have produced a stream of stories since the start of the insurrection on 15 February, claiming the Gaddafi regime has ordered mass rapes, used foreign mercenaries and employed helicopters against civilian protesters.
An investigation by Amnesty International has failed to find evidence for these human rights violations and in many cases has discredited or cast doubt on them. It also found indications that on several occasions the rebels in Benghazi appeared to have knowingly made false claims or manufactured evidence.
This directly challenges much of NATO’s justification for entering into the conflict. Cockburn’s reporting, like most of that which contradicts the official version of events, seems to have been largely and tragically ignored. Media Lens speculate on the reasons behind this:
It ought to be surprising that Amnesty and Human Rights Watch exposed US-UK propaganda in a way that the entire pack of Western media hounds was unable or unwilling to do. But as we have described many times, with rare exceptions, journalists function as stenographers to power. Arguably, as democracy has rapidly eroded in Britain – with all main political parties increasingly serving the same privileged interests – journalists have become even less inclined to challenge the powerful.
As has become increasingly common in contemporary warfare, winning the battle for public opinion at any cost has become essential. The stories from Libya bear a striking resemblance to those released at the beginning of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, where it was said that Iraqi troops had entered a Kuwaiti hospital, taken 312 babies out of incubators and left them to die on the hospital floor. The claims rested on the story of a 15 year old girl, which was later exposed as a deliberate fraud:
Nayirah [whose testimony these claims were based on] was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. Her father was Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait’s Ambassador to the US. Stauber and Rampton noted that Nayirah had been coached by US PR company Hill & Knowlton’s vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado ‘in what even the Kuwaitis’ own investigators later confirmed was false testimony’. The story of the 312 murdered babies was an outright lie.
This story in turn shares similarities with those relayed to the general public during World War Two of German soldiers bayoneting babies, and of others throughout the last century, which were used to justify foreign intervention and gain public support.
If there is indeed a compelling case for intervention in Libya, then the government and the media certainly aren’t presenting it to us. Gaddafi is certainly an abhorrent man, a dictator responsible for human rights abuses and various other acts of repression who should be removed from power for the sake of the Libyan population, but reliable evidence for the claims of widespread rape and murders of civilians simply did not exist at the time of resolution 1973 being passed, nor does it today.
The case for intervention becomes far weaker when compared with Syria, another nation which has risen up in a wave of popular protest, spurred on by the Arab spring movement. Syria appears to have suffered hundreds of civilian protester deaths. This is how the Guardian compared the situation in both countries back in April:
Syria: Four hundred protesters are already thought to have been killed and a bloody crackdown is under way in Deraa. The regime and its security forces have a reputation for ruthlessness.
Libya: At the time of the first French air strike on 19 March, civilian casualties were thought to be low. However, Gaddafi forces were on the outskirts of the city of Benghazi, and Gaddafi had warned that they would go from house to house and ‘show no mercy’.
This of course begs the obvious question: why intervene in Libya and not Syria. If we extend the argument further, we might then ask why we are not attacking Saudi Arabia or countless other dictatorships with terrible human rights records. Dr Eoin Clarke makes some excellent comparisons with the conflict in the Congo (where few are suggesting NATO intervention) demonstrating how the situation in Libya pales in comparison.
Whilst it pains me to have to repeat the somewhat clichéd: it’s all about the oil argument, like any resource rich nation, control over hydrocarbons must always be considered as a factor during decisions on whether or not to become involved in a conflict.
Is there anyone – anywhere – who actually believes that these aren’t the driving considerations in why we’re waging this war in Libya? After almost three months of fighting and bombing – when we’re so far from the original justifications and commitments that they’re barely a distant memory – is there anyone who still believes that humanitarian concerns are what brought us and other Western powers to the war in Libya? Is there anything more obvious – as the world’s oil supplies rapidly diminish – than the fact that our prime objective is to remove Gaddafi and install a regime that is a far more reliable servant to Western oil interests, and that protecting civilians was the justifying pretext for this war, not the purpose?
Some may paint this as pure anti-neoliberal conspiracy theory, yet the US was undoubtedly worried about loss of influence over the vast Libyan petroleum reserves, as this diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks clearly demonstrates:
Libya needs to exploit its hydrocarbon resources to provide for its rapidly-growing, relatively young population. To do so, it requires extensive foreign investment and participation by credible IOCs [international oil companies]. Reformist elements in the Libyan government and the small but growing private sector recognize this reality. But those who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector that could jeopardize efficient exploitation of Libya’s extensive oil and gas reserves. Effective U.S. engagement on this issue should take the form of demonstrating the clear downsides to the GOL [government of Libya] of pursuing this approach, particularly with respect to attracting participation by credible international oil companies in the oil/gas sector and foreign direct investment.
Regime Change and Rebel Recognition
UN Resolution 1973, which authorised the NATO action, contains no items which authorise regime change in Libya, yet this certainly hasn’t prevented western leaders such as Hilary Clinton and William Hague from openly discussing this despite it being illegal under international law. Perhaps the biggest step towards this illegitimate goal is the recognition by the US of the Transitional National Council.
The TNC, based in Benghazi in the east of Libya, is led by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi’s former justice minister, along with other recent defectors from the regime in Tripoli. The group has been designed to provide an organisation which can be legally recognised by other nation states and to evolve some form of structure with the eventual aim of holding democratic elections. However, the road to this thoroughly admirable goal is certainly not a smooth one:
The dilemma is two-fold. First, to hold elections in the east without the participation of western Libya essentially equates with partitioning the country. At the same time, however, Libyans will not allow a so-far unaccountable TNC to continue making decisions for the future and managing extensive funds that are coming its way. The Libyan population still worry about corruption.
Other opposition groups, based in both the west and Libya, recognise the TNC and welcome its creation but remind that no one has elected them and that there is still no transparency.
In a exceptionally rare moment of clarity, Boris Johnson also pointed out (in the piece I briefly quoted earlier) the potential pitfalls of placing western support behind Libyan rebel groups:
Who are they, these rebels? What kind of democracy do we hope will bloom in the desert soil, after decades in which political parties have been banned? This is an area that has had no history of political pluralism for thousands of years, not even under the Carthaginians. Look at what has just happened in Egypt. The Facebook revolutionaries have got rid of Hosni Mubarak, widely seen as the frontman for the generals; and they have installed – er – the generals!
British left-wing newspaper the Morning Star reported that the same human rights group who had raised doubts about the abuses allegedly committed by the Gaddafi regime was now accusing Libyan rebel groups themselves of engaging in those very same abuses:
Western-backed insurgents in Libya have looted shops, homes and medical facilities in towns that they have seized in the oil-rich country’s western mountains, a US-based rights group warned today.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that in four towns captured by rebels in the Nafusa Mountains over the past month rebels had damaged property, burned homes, looted hospitals, homes and shops and beaten people suspected of supporting the government.
HRW said its own researchers had seen some of the abuses while it had learned about others through witnesses and by talking to a rebel commander.
For the US to imply that a legitimate and trustworthy opposition already exists, waiting in the wings to take over the running of the country is certainly not the case. This therefore makes their endorsement of the TNC somewhat of a gamble, especially since it unlocks Libyan cash held overseas to the rebels. An injection of finance will also allow them to purchase weapons, which appears to be a way of getting around the ban on this provided in the UN resolution.
The situation currently appears to be entering a stalemate scenario, with diplomats entering negotiations which some might argue they should have entered into in the first place, as an alternative to NATO air strikes. Meanwhile, NATO member countries are repeating their call for Gaddafi to quit and he shows little sign of doing so. Lets also not forget that (partially orchestrated) support for Gaddafi seen in rallies across the capital Tripoli, does remain significant.
Its possible that we may eventually see a nation partitioned along the similar lines to Sudan or perhaps some kind of negotiated settlement with Russia in which Gaddafi would step down, as has been discussed fairly recently.
In the meantime, we should perhaps be inquiring of the UN security council members, and more specifically of our own government, if they really knew what they were getting into when pushing for military action. We should also question whether Gaddafi can indeed be defeated militarily by the rebels and NATO fire power alone.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this conflict is that nobody really knows anything for sure.
The situation in Libya is incredibly complex and to reduce it to a simplified Good vs Evil narrative, as we also saw happen in the media reporting of Iraq (and as Adam Curtis has pointed out in conflicts elsewhere) is extraordinarily dangerous and may only serve to cause further damage to the west’s already tarnished reputation for conducting overseas military interventions.