Libya: Illegalities of Humanitarian Intervention

Experts disagree on the legality of the intervention in Libya by the U.S. and its “allies” without even getting to the bottom of the issue, which goes beyond the actions of the dictator (until then “president” for the Western powers and the media), but falls on the international hypocrisy of hand picking the human rights violations that best suits their interest to punish and criticize.

International Parallels?

One of the reasons why the United Nations, through the Security Council, allowed and approved the intervention in Libya lies within the humanitarian crisis and in the possibility of a “disproportionate” armed response by the Libyan government with exemplary violence against the rebels.

The future danger (future, not immediate) of a Libyan response motivated the intervention: an attempt to avoid a humanitarian crisis that could, then, deem necessary U.N. action to protect civilians.

The problem in itself does not lie in futurology and the supposed good nature of the so-called international community to avoid a humanitarian crisis, but in the selectiveness of this good nature and the concern in defending civilian populations from their dictators.

Humanitarian crises occur every day, without a single Western power volunteering to intervene. Israel’s most recent war against Lebanon or even against Gaza cost the lives of thousands and did not count on the support of any international organization (heaven forbid the U.N.), nor was it even acknowledged by the same countries which, today, demonstrate so much concern over the Libyan civilians.

At the same time in which the Libyan invasion occurred, forces from Saudi Arabia invaded their neighbor Bahrain, but instead of civilian protection, the objective was to guarantee the survival of the regime and protect it from the angry population. Bahrain is a strategic ally of the U.S. and the West in the region. Libya, after 40 years of Gaddafi rule is unstable, tends to have spurts of nationalism, supported international terrorism of the left, and today is an inconvenient ally of Europe and the U.S.

It is not necessary to dig very deep to understand that the “humanitarian” motivations in Libya do not apply to allied countries like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Israel.

Intervention and Civil War

The conflict between Gaddafi and the rebels, at first, developed like a civil war, and as such, foreign intervention was not warranted.

Internal conflicts between belligerent groups are not susceptible to intervention and should be resolved internally, especially when the powers have already chosen sides, instead of, if the reasons had really been humanitarian, merely seeking to protect civilians and at most stabilizing the conflict, guaranteeing respect for the basic rules of war.

The notion of “humanitarian intervention,” in itself, is nonsense. Not only because intervention leads to the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians besides destroying a large part of a country’s infrastructure, but also because this responds solely to the economic interests of the assailants, interested in seizing the riches of the country or in greasing their arms industry.

Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszarós gave the name Cancerous Growth to the latter, for when capitalism needs a war in order to put its economy back on track. It is necessary to not only invest in the war economy (the arms industry and every sector that it depends on), but also to boost the economy in a subsequent reconstruction of the country devastated by the attacks.

It is a policy of exclusive gains for the invading powers, in which the attacked country serves as a laboratory and is at the mercy of foreign interests.

This does not deal with defending Gaddafi, rather denouncing the intentions behind the intervention.


Upon intervening in Libya, the U.S. guarantees that, at least, it will have some role in the transition and can therefore set some rules. With the country destroyed, and with a threatened infrastructure, the U.S. would quickly appear as a financial source and support the country in need of investments and direction.

Oil would come as a bonus.

The intention of the U.S. was to intervene in any way possible, and there was already a preceding example: Kosovo.

During the conflict between Kosovo and Serbia the U.S. intervened illegally, together with NATO, to defend the Kosovar side. The U.N. was forced to pretend that it did not see anything and to support the intervention after the fact, while constrained, taking responsibility for the following pacification and for the process of reconstructing the country.

The illegality was evident due to the lack of subsequent acknowledgement on the part of traditional allies of the U.S., like Spain — fearful that any acknowledgement could incite even more Basque and Catalan nationalism (and to a lesser degree, Galician) that constantly threat the country’s unity.

The Illegality of the Resolution 1973 and the No-Fly Zone

The Security Council approved Resolution 1973 on March 17, which deepened the economic and arms embargo against Libya, introducing two new sanctions: The imposition of a no-fly zone (area of air exclusion) and the need of civilian protection at all cost by U.N. member states. A no-fly zone determines the area in which no planes may take off without permission from the United Nations, thereby preventing air attacks and bombings against the rebels and civilian targets in the east of Libya, a region no longer under government control.

Resolution 1973 was approved by 10-0, with five abstaining, clearing the way for U.N. member states to not only prohibit any flight from a Libyan aircraft, but also permitting the bombings of airports and of infrastructure used to stow planes or runways used for takeoff and landing.

The resolution does not, at any moment, allow the U.S. and its allies to attack the palaces of Gaddafi or to try to overthrow him, nor does it allow the bombing of military trucks, cars or tanks in transit on any part of Libya.

The selective attacks that the U.S. and its allies have been doing against military facilities without any relation to the imposition of a no-fly zone are ultimately, completely illegal; just as much as the attacks aimed at overthrowing Gaddafi or attacking him directly.

The intention of the resolution is clear: to prevent civilian casualties and to stabilize the conflict, but it does not give any permission to the “West” to impose this result.

It was certain that the U.S. was going to intervene one way or another, so it is better that it was under the auspice and limits of the U.N. Yet, more than once, the U.N. has demonstrated its futility and in no moment did the Secretary General, or any other official, repudiate the illegality of the attacks of the U.S. against targets without any sort of relation to Resolution 1973.

Further Resolution

With the resolution approved and minimum demands set, the intervention commenced. From the beginning, we have seen the disproportionate use of missiles against targets that were not even remotely designated under the resolution. Random military facilities and even a building complex where Gaddafi lived were targets of bombings.

It is possible to interpret that, for the “defense of civilian life,” which is an important point of Resolution 1973, it is acceptable to take measures to ensure their security, so it would be legitimate to bomb troops in route to attack civilian areas. However, this is just a form of justification to the attack on military forces in Tripoli or in areas being defended against the rebels, areas under governmental control and far from the real areas of conflict.

The difference can seem subtle, but militarily it makes sense. One thing is the justified attack on troops in the east part of the country, a region under control or mostly under rebel control that is prepared for attacking civilians or even rebel troops, while another very different thing is attacking troops stationed in the west of the country, a region primarily under the control of Gaddafi; in other words, troops aimed at defending the government.

Not in vain, China, through its press officer, was proven wrong by the attacks, just like Brazil who criticized the intervention, and Russia who did not fail to criticize the actions.

The decision to deport Gaddafi is not in the hands of the coalition that is now intervening in Libya; therefore the destruction of all military structure and of Libyan infrastructure is not in the agenda, or at least it should not be. The destruction of the government defenses would mean opening the way for the rebels to take power, and if the U.S. did not take the initiative, they themselves would overthrow Gaddafi — whose intent was declared by the English Ministry of Defense in declaration to the international media.

According to the resolution, the allies should “take all necessary measures (…) to protect civilians and areas inhabited by civilians under threat of attack.” Indeed, it is extremely broad, but using the extent to which all of the other points in the resolution are analyzed, we can paint a complete picture in which the change of regime is not in the agenda and that, by mere observation, we understand that killing Gaddafi would bring the exact opposite result from what was seen in the resolution.

So on one hand, it can be interpreted that, in order to prevent civilian casualties, Gaddafi should be eliminated, after all he is allegedly responsible, but on the other hand no one outside of the Libyan public is given any sort of permission to make the decision of regime change.

Moreover, it is important to still remember that it is not up to President Obama, but to U.S. Congress to approve military actions, or that, since the beginning, the intervention lies in illegality. House Democrats against the intervention have even considered requesting the impeachment of Obama.

So as you can see, the intervention in Libya, even with the backing of the U.N., is a comedy of errors and illegality, from all sides and in all directions.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a graduate in International Relations from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PCU-SP) and pursuing his Master’s in communication from the Casper Libero College.

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