Libya, and the Limits of Liberal Intervention
23 October 2011
Nato intervened in Libya under a UN Security Council mandate to protect civilians. The intervention has been successful so far, but controversial, in that there have been concerns about Nato exceeding the mandate. The future of the Libyan revolution will influence not just the future of the Libyan people, but the ability of future international action to forestall looming atrocities.
The UN mandate came about partly because at its 50th anniversary summit 150 heads of state and government declared that, if states did not protect their people from atrocities, the wider international community should act to do so, if necessary using military power. This is the essence of the Responsibility to Protect.(…)
Cameron and Sarkozy drew on these vital principles in their early statements about the limits of foreign intervention, stressing legality, regional support and achievability. There is little danger of their being carried away in proposing other interventions that might look necessary but would not actually meet the criteria. And if they threw caution away, the international community would not do so – the case of Syria shows that. (…)
Libya, therefore, is not a direct precedent for involvement in the Arab world. The situation in March presented a rare alignment of three factors: a convincing popular request from the victims of the Libyan government, which had few allies (other than Gaddafi's clients in Africa); regional support for intervention from the Arab League, with international legality established through the UN Security Council; and a modest military task coupled with a convincing exit strategy. (…)
The manner of Gaddafi's death presents the new Libyan government with its first international challenge: how to reconcile foreign calls for an inquiry with the feeling in Libya that an evil man, who had embroiled the people in war and who refused to surrender when all was clearly lost, got what he deserved.
The international community should make clear that extrajudicial execution and killing a prisoner are wrong wherever they occur. But it would be unwise to dwell too long on the point, in the context of the chaotic end of bloody fighting in Sirte. To do so would also prompt calls for other notorious killings, perpetrated by countries who are our allies, or who claim to share high ideals, to be scrutinised and criticised – as indeed they would be in a fairer world.
Whether a trial would have been better for the world is now a hypothetical question. Gaddafi's death robbed his victims' families, Libyan and British among them, of the chance to see him questioned on how and why things were done as they were. The sight of Gaddafi in the International Criminal Court would have been a powerful signal to bad rulers elsewhere. But drawing a line under the past so decisively may turn out to be more of a help than a hindrance to Libya's progress now. (…)