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A Critique of 'Humanitarian' Interventionism in Libya

Following the questions raised about the discharge of the responsibility to protect by Gentian Zyberi in his recent post on the situation in Libya, and the remarks I previously made on the situation in Egypt and the responsibility of the international community, I would like to draw our readers’ attention to a revealing and insightful analysis conducted by two UCLA scholars in an opinion article on Al-Jazeera news.

The authors, Bali and Abu-Rish, discuss the applicability of the responsibility to protect to the situation in Libya by examining the corollary rights of third states that decide to act upon these duties and the  necessary limitations thereof. The authors discuss the scope and extent of the interventionist policies and actions of third states that are engaging in foreign military intervention actions in Libya ostensibly in the name of the international community, and the means by which they have decided to fulfill the obligation to protect the Libyan people from the oppressive regime in their country.

By asking what effective and useful help, beyond diplomatic and political solidarity, the international community could afford the Libyan people, the authors critique of the ongoing ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Libya considers issues ranging from the socio-political considerations of the context specific situation in Libya and the risk of further fragmenting the political fabric in the country and the ways in which the ICC referral has been ‘counter-productive’ to the management of Gaddafi’s fury and his eventual capture. The simple fact that the Libyan people are suffering from shortages of medical supplies and essential goods, including clean water, whilst foreign military are focusing on military measures is auspicious and telling as for the international community’s defaults.

In their conclusions, the authors hold that

To engage 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.
We strongly advocate creative strategies of solidarity with the Libyan people while underscoring that calls for coercive external intervention do not qualify. Indeed, it is possible that demands for Western support to the rebels may already have done more harm than good.
In the end, we argue for humility in imagining the role we might play in the course of Libyans’ struggle. The international community is neither entitled to take the reins today nor dictate the post-regime scenario tomorrow. Further, those of us who wish to stand in solidarity with Libyans from outside of their country must recognise that we may not be best placed to identify which local actors enjoy broad-based support.
Solidarity cannot be reduced to the diplomatic politics of recognition nor to arguments for external intervention.
In the end, we counsel acting from the outside only when our actions are clearly aligned with the interests of Libyan civilians. Imaginative strategies to offer much-needed relief and refuge to Libya’s vulnerable population represent a challenge the international community has yet to meet. That is a good starting point for transnational solidarity.

The recent actions of the US-led coalition forces engaging in military intervention in Libya have also received criticism from state officials including Russia, China and the Arab League. The Russian Foreign Minister spokesman has also suggested that the coalition forces have acted beyond their Security Council assigned mandate.


  1. BA Jones BA Jones 25 March 2011

    As the Libyan people suffer from shortages of medical supplies and essential goods, including clean water, foreign military are focusing on military measures. This does not sound like humanitarian intervention. Are we even following the mandate to help the people of Libya we originally had to go to Libya? Foreign military should re-focus on the people of Libya and start providing more resources and refuge for them. If we continue down the path we are on, Libya will turn into another occupied nation, and the United States will likely be left there alone. If we’re going to call it ‘humanitarian intervention,’ we should come with relief, not occupation.

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