Libya – the case for intervention

by Conor Foley on March 22, 2011

There are lots of good arguments against the current military intervention in Libya and Michael Walzer sets some of them out in Dissent.

Arguments against ‘humanitarian intervention’ can usually be grouped under three headings: the pragmatic – what is our endgame; the pacific – people will be killed; and the ideological objections – which come from the right and left. Both of the latter have merits, although they self-evidently cannot both be true. They can be roughly summarized as ‘Why should western troops be asked to die for a cause that does not affect our ‘national interests’ and can we believe western governments when they say that they are in fact acting for altruistic motives?’

I find the latter of the three arguments the least interesting because they inevitably descend into a search for the hidden ‘real reasons’ for military interventions. While there is a place for such discussion, I think that the first two are more immediately compelling and would suggest that the case for or against a ‘humanitarian intervention’ rests on answering two broad questions: has the level of violence reached such a threshold that the use of counter-force is morally justifiable and is it a practical, strategic option that will actually make things better for the people concerned?

In the early 1990s I visited the Kurdish ‘safe haven’ in northern Iraq, shortly after it had been established at the end of the first Gulf War. This was the prototype for the subsequent ‘humanitarian interventions’ that have taken place over the last few decades and there is no doubt in my mind that it saved tens of thousands of lives. The arguments against its establishment were every bit as compelling as those that I have heard against the current actions in Libya, but the alternative was a probable genocide. A journalist that I was travelling with at the time said that he had seen bodies swinging from the lampposts of every town that the Republican Guard recaptured from the Kurds.

During the Kosovo conflict of 1999 I was asked to run some training sessions on international human rights and humanitarian law, first in refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia, and then in Kosovo itself as the war came to an end. The stories that I heard were harrowing, but, perhaps because I spent longer working there (I was subsequently seconded to UNHCR for a year), I came away with a more nuanced view of the conflict and think that, on balance, NATO’s bombing campaign did more harm than good. This may also turn out to be the case in Libya.

Two years ago I was working in Sri Lanka when the army finally stormed the last stronghold of the LTTE. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were blockaded into an area the size of New York Central Park, where at least 20,000 were killed over a three month period. The area was shelled incessantly and hospitals and food-distribution points appear to have been deliberately targeted. Many more died from starvation and disease because the government blocked humanitarian access. Others were summarily executed during the final assault. When a staff member for the agency that I was working for was killed, the Ministry of Defence released a false statement saying that he was a terrorist.

There was never even the remotest prospect of a ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Sri Lanka and I only include it in the discussion to show that the option of doing nothing also has moral consequences. On balance I am in favour of the current intervention in Libya. As I said in my previous post, I think that the UN resolution authorizing it puts the protection of civilians at the centre of its mandate and sends a clear signal to governments of the world that they cannot massacre their own people with impunity.

I do not know what the end game is. I accept that the campaign will result in people being killed by allied airstrikes and I presume that the intervening governments have selfish as well as altruistic motives for their actions. However, I think that the situation in Libya immediately prior to the intervention passed the threshold test that I set out above. I think that the UN is fulfilling its responsibility to protect the lives of civilians in this case.