Libya and Operation Unified Protector 4 years on

More than four and a half years have passed since Security Council resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO airstrikes (Operation Unified Protector) against Gaddafi’s regime. Back then, the operation was called a success for having had only a minimal impact on the civilian population, the great level of cooperation and the decisive role of other NATO member states than the US and contributing to the overthrow of Gaddafi. Euphoria was everywhere, the Responsibility to Protect was „Alive and Well“ (Thomas G Weiss) and an article in Foreign Affairs published in December 2012 described Libya as „one of the most successful countries to emerge from the uprisings that have rocked the Arab world over the past two years“ (Dirk Vandewalle, ‚After Qaddafi. The Surprising Success of the New Libya‘ 91 Foreign Affairs 8).
Obviously, academia and the international community have sobered up in recent years. Libya, one of the countries with the highest living standards (although far from being a paradise and controlled in a quasi-Stalinistic fashion by Gaddafi), is close to being a failed state (it is ranked #25 on the 2015 Fragile State Index), with two parallel governments competing for control, a crumbling health sector and a drastically deteriorating access to food. As Bernardino León, Special Representative of the Secretary-General
and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya summarized the situation at a Security Council Meeting from late August 2015 (worthy to be quoted extensively):

Fifteen months since the start of military operations in Benghazi, in the east, it is clear that the confrontations between the parties have gradually transformed into a war of trenches, with no imminent end foreseen. In the interim, the status quo is exacting a heavy toll on the civilian population and on whatever remains of the city’s much-damaged infrastructure. More than 100,000 of Benghazi’s population remain internally displaced, and 70 per cent of the city’s health facilities are either inaccessible or not functioning.
The situation in the south is equally appalling. The absence of the State and of a proper functioning security apparatus has exacerbated local competition among tribal groups for power and resources — a conflict that has its roots in decades-long marginalization and neglect by central authorities. At the national level, the scale of human suffering is staggering for a country with large oil reserves and strong economic potential. According to different United Nations agencies, an estimated 1.9 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance to meet their basic health-care needs. Access to food is now a major problem for some 1.2 million people, mostly in Benghazi and the east. The number of internally displaced persons across Libya now stands at approximately 435,000. The health-care system is on the verge of collapse, with many hospitals across the country overcrowded and operating at severely reduced capacity, and many reporting acute shortages of medicines, vaccines and medical equipment. Power cuts are endemic in many areas of the country. Some neighbourhoods, such as in Benghazi, are enduring electricity cuts almost around the clock.
Close to 250,000 migrants are estimated to be in the country or transiting through it, many of them facing significant protection issues, including arbitrary arrest and detention in abusive conditions, sexual abuse, forced labour, exploitation and extortion. This year alone, more than 2,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, the vast majority in a desperate bid to make the sea crossing from Libya to Europe’s southern shores.
At the same time, the country’s economy continues to contract rapidly, the result of a significant reduction in oil revenues due to falling oil prices and low oil production from Libya’s oilfields. Libya’s financial reserves are also being heavily depleted, in large part as the result of unsustainable expenditures on non-productive items. The political-institutional crisis in the country has also manifested itself in growing competition over key financial and other sovereign institutions.Against that grim backdrop of growing hardship and misery stemming from deteriorating security and general lawlessness, widespread violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law continue with impunity across the country. Armed groups from all sides continue to abduct civilians on account of their political opinions or identity, often in the hope of exchanging them in return for a ransom or for the release of fighters or other civilians taken by rival groups. Not even humanitarian aid workers have been spared.

Preventing and/or ending gross human rights abuses were the primary motives behind the intervention in Libya. It was feared that Gaddafi’s forces would continue to use excessive force not only against his military adversaries but also against the civilian population, in particular in Benghazi, which was explicitly mentioned in resolution 1973. Nevertheless, when deciding whether to intervene and how, long-term prospects also need to be taken into account. While it is absolutely unclear what Libya would look like absent a military intervention or if NATO had refrained from taking sides but rather eg established safe havens for civilians or to establish a ceasefire with a possible divide of the country until a political solution is found, one may doubt whether that happened. Rather, the motives behind intervening in Libya seem to be a mixture of having grasped the opportunity to get rid of a dictator who had been in charge for too long, committed too many grave mistakes (remember Lockerbie or the1986 Berlin discotheque bombing) and controlled one of the oil-richest countries in the world, addressing demands to „do something“ in Libya, and perhaps build up a new allied state in the region.
In sum, the current situation clearly shows the extent of miscalculation or ignorance when it came to the political dynamics in tribal Libya. One may thus doubt whether Operation Unified Protector is still seen as a ‚model intervention‘ and if the interveners would act differently today. Removing a dictator is comparatively easy, but the West’s (and in particular the US‘) bad track record in establishing or at least contributing to a functioning, stable, and even democratic state has certainly not improved with the outcome of the intervention Libya.

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