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Humanitarian intervention triumphs over sovereignty in Libya

By Thanapathi
Much has been said about the current strife in Libya where a coalition of forces have been hammering military infrastructure of Mamumad Gadhafi for over a week. The action led by mostly US and European air forces backed by several Arab nations has once again brought up the long-standing debate on whether the international community has a right to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. The outcome in Libya is going to shape the future international system and the norms that would govern it in the 21st century.
At the heart of the debate are several crucial questions. Does the Libyan government, one that is run by an autocrat, who for the last 42 years have been ruling without a mandate from its citizens, have a right to invoke the principle of state sovereignty and demand that the international community looks away while brutally suppressing a popular uprising.

On the other side of the argument, if the international community is to intervene in Libya what are the rules of that engagement, what would prevent countries from furthering their own national interest in the name of protecting Libyan people? If Libyan sovereignty can be violated today what stops intervention in other countries, more importantly who selects when to intervene and when to look away?

The modern concept of state sovereignty has its roots in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 when European kingdoms agreed for the first time to recognise the territorial integrity of each nation state and more importantly the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs of an independent state. This principle was enshrined in the United Nation’s Charter when each member country was recognised as a sovereign, independent and equal entity. The UN was intentionally structured into an intergovernmental organisation rather than a supra governmental one. Therefore, rather than making it global government of sought it emphasised on the sovereignty of each state.

In a perfect system, this would have been an ideal system to govern the world, each state would have been responsible for its citizens, adhered to universal standards of governance and treating its populace and respected each others’ right to do the same in their own territory. As in any other human endeavour nothing does work according to way it is supposed to. All countries do not play by the same rules. Some governments end up being the nemesis of their own people, on occasions commenting appalling crimes worse than any committed by foreign enemies.

The Rwandan genocide is a case in point where 800,000 people were massacred within a matter of five weeks by the ruling Hutu ethnic community. Similarly, in the latter part of the 1970’s the Cambodian leader Pol Pot unleashed a campaign of terror on his own people that resulted in a systematic killing of two million people. What is the world to do when governments turn on their people? Is the concept of sovereignty any longer applicable when the sovereign has lost all legitimacy?

In the case of Libya, the regime of Mamumad Gadhafi was at the verge of a massacre in its eastern town of Benghazi where thousands of rebels had taken up arms against the autocratic regime since mid-February. After having achieved initial success in their rebellion, the opposition groups were pushed back with deadly force by the pro-government forces. These forces literally were at the gates of Benghazi when the UN Security Council passed a resolution that allowed international forces to intervene in order to prevent a massacre in the rebel capital.

Resolution 1973 authorised the establishment of a No-Fly Zone and to use “all means necessary” to protect civilians under attack by government troops. The United States, Britain and France quickly began air strikes on Libya’s military air defences and Gadhafi’s forces. They have since been joined by several other countries, including two Arab states, in enforcing the flight ban and other provisions in the Security Council resolution.
Proponents of the measure have hailed it as a victory for the “Responsibility to Protect” also known as R2P doctrine. The R2P concept emerged out of the international community’s inability to halt genocides like those in Rwanda and Bosnia. According to the doctrine, if a state fails to protect its citizens from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity,” it becomes the international community’s responsibility to do so. It includes use of military force by the international community if peaceful measures prove inadequate. It is this provision that the doctrine’s supporters point to for justifying the air strikes in Libya. Legally, morally, politically, and militarily it has only one justification: protecting the country’s people.

Humanitarian operation
Intervention on humanitarian grounds is not all ways a straight forward affair. It is not surprising that Sri Lankans are weary of this notion having first hand witnessed such an action in 1987 when the Indian air force violated Sri Lankan air space in the infamous Parripu drop over Jaffna arguing that it was a means to break a blockade of the peninsula by Sri Lankan forces. Similarly, the US administration of President George W. Bush termed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a humanitarian operation to rescue civilians from a brutal dictatorship.
It is necessary to differentiate the causes and motivations for international interventions when they have occurred and desist the dangerous parallel drawing. NATO air strikes against Serbia in 1999 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 both happened without UN authorisation. While the former ended ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and saved millions of ethnic Albanians from being slaughtered the latter resulted in a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands.

Similarly, what is happening in Libya today is very different to what happened in Iraq in 2003. Current actions are authorised by the UN and backed by the Arab League. Despite various theories as to the vested interest of the western nations, i.e oil, it needs to be remembered that these nations, quite hypocritically had normalised relations with Libya in recent years. Leaders of the UK, France and Italy had visited Tripoli in the last five years and signed onto billions of dollars worth of trade deals.
From a purely national interests perspective for these countries they could have worked with Gaddafi to secure their oil, if that was the only consideration in the equation while the opposition still remains an enigma. The reluctance of the US to initiate actions, its urgency to handover command of the operations to Europeans also suggest that this was not a long thought conspiracy to topple Gaddafi as was the case with Saddam Hussein in 2003 where the invasion was planned months ahead.

Double standards
It is not that there are no double standards, contradictions and hypocrisies in the current Libyan action. The Western coalition striking Libya today would not think of similar options against Yemen, a country ruled by an equally dictatorial regime which is now a facing a popular uprising. Yemen being a crucial ally of the US in its fight against Al Qaeda would most likely get gentle nudges to reform its ways rather than bombed into rubble.
Despite these double standards and hypocrisies, there remains a fundamental truism at work here: governments cannot hide behind notions of sovereignty to commit atrocities against their own people. Whether one sees western conspiracies unravelling in Libya, agree with the actions taking place there or not, the fact that a dictator didn’t get away with slaughter of innocent civilians is a good outcome for the type of world we wish to live in.