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Foreign Policy

A Failure of Statesmanship: The UN Gives War, Not Libya, A Chance

May 06 , 2011
  • Aya Burweila

    Senior Analyst, Research Institute for European & American Studies

On April 26, 2011, one day after NATO attempted its second extra-judicial killing of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in his Tripoli residence, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon made the following statement:

“The continuing imperative is to protect civilians. Clearly, the Security Council’s decisive and unified action has saved many lives. It is also clear that the Libyan regime has lost both legitimacy and credibility, particularly in terms of protecting its people and addressing their legitimate aspirations for change. The Libyan people want to determine their own political future. They must be given the chance to do so.”

However, seven weeks into UNSCR 1973, it is the United Nation’s credibility as an organization created to prevent wars that is facing increasing skepticism and criticism.

Strongly suggesting a false pretext for war, it has now been demonstrated both by Steve Chapman and Alan J. Kuperman that the coalition’s claim that ‘action must take place urgently’ in order to prevent Gaddafi from ‘slaughtering his own people’ fails to withstand even ‘casual scrutiny’ and benefited greatly from a systematic failure in critical and professional journalism. This point was already raised by Manjeev Singh Puri, India’s deputy ambassador to the UN during the debate on the no-fly zone:

‘We have not had the benefit of his report or even a report from the Secretariat or his assessment as yet. That would have given us an objective analysis of the situation on the ground… The Council has today adopted a resolution that authorises far-reaching measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, with relatively little credible information on the situation on the ground in Libya.’

In light of Iraq and Kosovo, Stephen Walt of Harvard University explains in Foreign Policy that the lack of credible information is especially important as ‘the case for action is even weaker if there is a genuine risk that intervention might prolong the fighting, produce a stalemate or a failed state, or provoke the government into acts of brutality that it might not have conducted otherwise.’ Furthermore, military intervention aborts a genuine and viable movement towards democratization where it exists, and inherently denies the Libyan people both their sovereignty and their right to choose their own leadership, as the current opposition has proven not only to lack broad political and tribal support across Libya, but appears to derive both its existence and legitimacy from select foreign backing.

Centuries ago, Germany’s most prominent prime minister, Otto von Bismarck declared, “I consider even a victorious war as an evil, from which statesmanship must endeavor to spare nations.” Such an endeavor by the Secretary General himself was sorely lacking as the Libyan crises unfolded. Curtis Doebbler, a prominent international human rights lawyer who witnessed the fierce armed insurrection as it began, stresses in the Al- Ahram that the Security Council ‘never attempted to resolve the dispute peacefully.’ Under the title ‘Giving Peace No Chance in Libya,’ Doebbler also pointed out that the Security Council did not even give the measures stipulated by UNSCR 1970 a chance to work: many had not even been implemented when the bombing of Libya began. This is in direct violation of Article 42 of the UN charter [among others], which allows the Security Council to authorize the use of force only after it determines that peaceful means of conflict resolution have failed.

The ‘legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people’ not withstanding, according to Michel Chossudovsky of The Centre for Research on Globalization , in the days prior to UNSCR 1973, the armed opposition movement based in Benghazi was unequivocally divided on the prospect of foreign military intervention. This division was between the grassroots movement inspired by ‘the Arab Spring’ and the foreign supported ‘leaders’ who urged intervention on ‘humanitarian grounds’ and as a means to install themselves in power –an attempt at a military coup d’état that precludes cease-fires and elections. Most importantly, the majority of the Libyan population, both the supporters and opponents of the government alike, were firmly opposed to any form of outside intervention. 

As Asli U Bali and Ziad Abu-Rish warned in ‘The Drawbacks of Intervention in Libya,’ engaging ‘in such coercive strategies without being able to evaluate the full range of consequences amounts to subordinating the interests of the Libyan people to our own sense of purpose and justice.’ Abu-Rish further warns in ‘All Sorts of Interventions’ that ‘external interveners will always act according to the logic of their own interests and there is no reason to assume an alignment between those logics and the interests of the people on the ground. Thus, it is not only that the intervention in Bahrain points to a contradiction in principle and practice. It is also that such action points to the need to question the assumption that the current intervention in Libya is de facto in the interest of the Libyan people.’

Usurping the Libyan people’s right to ‘self-determination,’ Ban-Ki Moon later touted it was the ‘strong recommendation’ by the Arab League -not a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the Libyan people’s interests- that allowed ‘the international community’ to ‘take decisive measures’ against Libya. It was later revealed by The Asia Time’s Pepe Escobar in a detailed article titled ‘Exposed: The US-Saudi Libya Deal’ that a full endorsement of the Arab League was in fact, non-existent; out of its 22 full members, only 11 were present at the voting. Six of them were members of the GCC, which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain, fellow tyrannies currently engaged in the brutal repression of pro-democracy protestors in Bahrain. At the end, only nine out of 22 members of the Arab League voted for the no-fly zone.

And so, as Abu-Rish concludes, rather than the Libyan people determining their own political future, ‘now the decision-makers of the course of events in both Bahrain and Libya are outsiders; repressing democratic calls in one instance and visiting untold potential damage on a whole country in another.’

In this context, when President Hu Jintao of China received Nicholas Sarkozy at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on March 31, 2011, he was compelled to urge his counterpart to ‘give peace a chance.’ More importantly, Jintao also pointed out that constructive proposals by the African Union and Turkey have already been presented and ‘deserve a positive response,’ stressing that "history has repeatedly proved that the use of force is no answer to any problem. Instead, it will only make the problem more complicated."

Indeed, in his ‘What Does Social Science Tell Us About the Libyan Adventure?’ Stephen Walt lists the results of the latest research on foreign military intervention:  According to Alexander Downes, who examined one hundred cases of "foreign imposed regime change" dating from 1816, when foreign interventions oust an existing leader and impose a wholly new government, as is being attempted in Libya today, the likelihood of civil war more than triples. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states "has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945." George Downs and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than three percent of the time. William Easterly found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War led to "significant declines in democracy." Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examined forty-two "foreign imposed regime changes" since 1920 and showed that when interventions "damage state infrastructural power" they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.

On April 27, 2011, the UN Security Council could not secure a press statement calling on Syria to stop its violence against peaceful protesters. In reference to NATO’s all-out attack on Libya under the guise of ‘protecting civilians,’ Alexander Pankin, the Russian representative to the UN explained that intervening would be ‘an invitation to civil war.’ Daniel Larison elaborates in The American Conservative: ‘Having stretched the meaning of UNSCR 1973 to make it into something that the abstaining governments no longer recognize, the intervening governments have made it harder in the future to mobilize an international response to similar crises, and they have given Russia and China ample reason never to trust the other permanent members when they are pushing through a resolution authorizing military action.’ As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin asked bluntly, ‘when the whole of so-called civilized society gangs up on one small country, destroying infrastructure that has been built over generations, is it good or bad? Personally, I do not like it."

Today, the developing situation on the ground is providing increasing evidence that the ‘flawed and defective’ UNSCR 1973 immediately degenerated into an illegal and unauthorized campaign of regime change, or in the words of Justin Raimundo, ‘a war of aggression by the de facto government of eastern Libya against the pro-Gadhafi Western half.’ Or as Benjamin Barber, Distinguished Senior fellow at Demos summarizes, a ‘war approved by no international body, declared by no national parliament and sanctioned by no moral code.’

With military intervention already causing the very calamity it purports to prevent, only cease-fires, peace talks and political solutions can be considered genuine humanitarian interventions. Having deemed the Libyans undeserving of the most basic diplomatic avenues to peace and self-determination, and adopting violent measures whose ends are not reflected in the means, the United Nations today has become a politicized instrument that cultivates and enables war-making and civil strife rather than conflict resolution and international security. As such, not only has the UN failed the Libyan people, but in doing so, embodies the very accusations it levels against the Libyan state.

Aya Burweila is a senior analyst in Research Institute for European and American Studies,Greece.

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