And Then Everyone Remembered Libya

War and Peace


Demonstrations in Bayda, Libya (2011) By ليبي صح - via Wikimedia Commons



Nestled along the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, the picturesque views of Libya’s shores stand in stark contrast to the ongoing violence in its cities. Four years after the ousting of violent dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the country continues to battle for stability. Far from the democracy many hoped it would become, the country is in the beginnings of a civil war, teetering on the brink of yet another disaster. 


Civilians have been attacked, killed, and forced to flee the region as a result of continued shelling and violent outbreaks—not to mention the emergence of terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State. With a multitude of warring factions in the mix, peace and security seem a distant dream for many Libyans. In the middle of it all is an international intervention—unfinished—and an obvious contributing factor to the power vacuum left in Gaddafi’s absence.



Déjà Vu

In his book, Interventions, Kofi Annan laments the United Nations’ many broken promises as a result of launching interventions it could not support. Looking back at the failure in Somalia in 1992, Annan explains the divergence between desired response and realistic capabilities. With the international community calling for intervention to save the people of Somalia from famine and civil war, 


the result was Security Council Resolution 814, adopted March 26, 1993, which U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright declared, "an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning, and viable member of the community of nations." The problem, however, was that with the removal of much of the U.S. troop presence, the ambitions of UNISOM II were expanding enormously just as it was being stripped of capabilities.


As has most recently been seen in Syria, there is the danger of acknowledging the need for action in the face of atrocities, and then not living up to that commitment. In Africa, shocking statistics have recently come out of the Central African Republic, with OCHA’s announcement that the mission to protect civilians and address humanitarian need in the country has only received 1.8% of the requested funding. In the peacekeeping mission in Mali, the U.S. alone chose to allocate zero dollars in its 2014 budget after promising $300 million. Lack of funding is not the only problem: political support and troop contributions are also perpetually insufficient for humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, leaving those in harm’s way to wonder just what purpose an international intervention serves. 



The Birth of a Principle

Eight years after the failure in Somalia, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) released its report, introducing the world to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The principle of R2P - the basic premise of which was agreed to by 191 countries as part of the outcome document of the 2005 World Summit—specifies not only whose responsibility it is to protect civilians from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, but further outlines how states ought to go about the process of protecting. The principle includes the responsibility to prevent these crimes, react to them when they are occurring, and rebuild in the aftermath. 


The principle of R2P is a bold declaration of the international community’s commitment to civilian protection; however, it has also served to further highlight the ongoing failure of interventions to truly serve the populations they aim to protect. Far too often the principle is enacted too late to successfully implement its first pillar of prevention, and then with too little support to follow through with its third pillar of rebuilding. Even more problematic is when R2P is used improperly, such as when it is conscripted as a front for regime change. In these situations, civilian populations can suffer unforeseen consequences, often as a direct result of outside intervention.  


With Libya in particular, the international intervention, led by NATO, unfortunately seemed to lead to greater violence rather than greater stability. As Nicolas Pelham wrote in the New York Review of Books, “the scale of terror and destruction...far surpasses that of Gaddafi’s last years. One wonders how many of the westerners who cheered on the war against him recognize this.” This is a fair question. Just how many people are aware of what really happened in Libya?



An Objective Never in Focus

By Joel Kramer - via Wikimedia Commons

The story goes that NATO and the United Nations intervened in Libya to prevent an imminent massacre under the banner of R2P, ousted Gaddafi, set up a new government, and then the entire Libyan population lived happily ever after. In reality, NATO launched an intervention into Libya in 2011, which was ostensibly to protect civilians from an imminent massacre. The operation evolved to focus on regime change, which left the Libyan National Transitional Council nominally in control of an extremely volatile region where various groups hoped to fill the void left by Gaddafi.    


Many within the United Nations were angered at the shift from a mission focused on civilian protection to a NATO mission aimed at regime change. At an event in New York, Adama Dieng, UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, insisted that R2P must not be equated with regime change. Simon Adams, Executive Director for the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, followed up with the explanation that “there are times in history when extinguishing a regime is the only way to end the atrocities. But if states believed that to be the case in Libya, they needed to make that case in front of the [Security] Council and in the court of public opinion.”


This controversial shift from a focus on civilian protection to regime change had a definite effect on international support for the intervention and, likely, on the following support mission. NATO’s intervention lasted a mere 222 days and ended with the establishment of a United Nations support mission with only a three-month mandate to stabilize the country. 


As NATO member states took their victory lap, any notion of peace-building, state-building, stabilizing the country, and further solidifying the new government—a core pillar of R2P—fell from the public view. As a result, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has not surprisingly struggled to fulfill its objective. While the mandate has long since been extended and expanded, with seemingly endless instability in the region, it is still not enough to foster peace and independence for the people of Libya. 


The impact this failure has had on the people of Libya is evident: An attack in January on a hotel in Tripoli led by members of the Islamic State killed at least ten people; a suicide bombing in Benghazi killed two and wounded 20; the seizing of a branch of Libya’s Central Bank in Al-Baida, which holds $100 billion in foreign reserves; and general continued violence around the Oil Crescent region. It is clear that regime change sans serious commitment to state-building on the part of intervening states has been a recipe for disaster.


Most recently, instability has allowed the strong emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya. Aerial attacks were launched over the weekend of February 15 in the eastern city of Darna and against various ISIS camps—both by Egypt and the Libyan Air Force—following the beheading of 21 Egyptians by ISIS militants. Such attacks add yet another complication in the path toward peace for Libyans. As the world struggles to respond to ISIS, the failure to create stability in Libya has opened another door to the group, creating even more problems for a state that already has enough to contend with. Allowing for the emergence of ISIS is just one of the many detrimental effects of what now could be considered a failed intervention.



A Mission Destined to Fail

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was established in September 2011 via UN Resolution 2009. Adopted unanimously by the Security Council, UNSMIL was tasked with the incredibly difficult job of supporting the Libyan people as they began the journey toward recovery, rebuilding, and reconciliation. Specifically, the mandate aimed to:


a. restore public security and order and promote the rule of law.
b. undertake inclusive political dialogue, promote national reconciliation, and embark upon the constitution-making and electoral process.
c. extend state authority, including through strengthening emerging accountable institutions and the restoration of public services.
d. promote and protect human rights, particularly for those belonging to vulnerable groups, and support transitional justice.
e. take the immediate steps required to initiate economic recovery.
f. coordinate support that may be requested from other multilateral and bilateral actors as appropriate.


In addition, a continued arms embargo was established for the state, as well as plans for the lifting of economic sanctions placed during the prevention and intervention phases of this conflict. The arms embargo was particularly crucial, as Libya is well known for its arms proliferation. As Peter Boukaert a member of the Human Rights Watch E-Team noted, “I’ve never seen weapons proliferation like Libya. The militias got their hands on weapons on a scale many times greater than other conflicts.” The arms embargo focuses on halting the proliferation of weapons, and when possible disposing of weapons and weapons material. 


Similar to many UN Missions, UNSMIL attempted to create a mandate that was all-encompassing of the needs of the country, stretching itself beyond its capabilities. The tendency of UN missions to overreach and under-prepare is unfortunately the hallmark of interventions under the auspices of R2P. There are so many good intentions which are undermined by unrealistic expectations and a serious lack of support by those who purport to believe in the responsibilities of being part of an international community.

As of June 2014, the latest date for which official data is available, UNSMIL had 229 staff members working in the country—201 of them in Tripoli—and a budget of $69,430,700. Continued violence and threats to the safety of UN staff, however, led to the temporary evacuation of all but five international staff members and the request that other UN programs working in the country evacuate their employees as well. At this point, most international staff are working remotely, either from neighboring states or from their home country. This has obviously harmed the efficiency of the work the mission is doing and delayed the ultimate goal of helping to build a free and democratic Libya.


UNSMIL has worked hard to foster political growth and development in Libya, focused on constitution building, elections, empowering women and other vulnerable populations, and creating transitional justice system—especially crucial as there have been ongoing reports of torture, executions, and unlawful imprisonment of Libyans by various actors. 


UNSMIL has made great strides to be sure, particularly in assisting in the election of a new House of Representatives, but the deck has most definitely been stacked against the struggling UN contingent. It should also be noted, UNSMIL has not been working alone in the country. In fact, there are 15 other UN agencies on the ground in Libya, many of which were there prior to the 2011 intervention. These groups include the UNDP, UNICEF, and UNOPS—each with a specific function in the process of stabilization and rebuilding. As the situation deteriorates though, more and more UN programs are choosing to evacuate their international staff as a matter of safety.


With instability, violent outbreaks, continued war crimes, and fracturing among the internationally recognized leadership in Tobruk the mission is meant to be working with, maintaining a focus on state-building has been difficult. Not surprisingly, many of Libya’s citizens are more concerned about current safety, not the creation of a broader system of laws. As a result of the ongoing violence, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has grown steadily—with recent numbers estimated more than 454,000. This is in addition to the approximately 1,000 civilian casualties and 4,000 injured just in the time between mid-July and the beginning of September last year. 


Persisting violence and insecurity in the region means that UNSMIL will continue to struggle to fulfill its mandate, and the people of Libya will remain without a legitimately elected government. Rebuilding a government is complicated enough without having to attempt to do so within a violent and unstable environment. Until this violence is addressed, very little progress in state-building will be possible.



Citizens fleeing Libya.  Credit: Magharebia



The Battle for Libya

Today, Libya is in a state of tumult as two separate governments—one based in Tripoli in the west and the other in the cities of Tobruk and Al-Baida in the east—in addition to a multitude of militias, fight for legitimacy and control of the country. The chain of events post-NATO intervention were so predictable it is painful to watch. In a leadership vacuum, parties desiring power will always find their way into the mix. In Libya’s case, this is overwhelmingly true.


In his most recent report to the Security Council, head of UNSMIL Bernardino Leon explained, “Despite the initial sense of optimism that accompanied the Mission’s establishment, today we find ourselves at a critical moment in Libya’s democratic transition—a faltering political process that has brought the country closer to the brink of protracted conflict and civil strife.”


The internationally recognized government is now stationed in two locations—the small coastal town of Tobruk and Libya’s fourth-largest city Al-Baida. Originally based in the capital of Tripoli, this government was driven out by the militias and forced to find a new place from which to govern. Even the move from Tripoli did not ensure the safety of lawmakers, leading at one point this summer to an attempt to run the government from a ferry off the coast of Tobruk


With the help of UNSMIL, the government in Tobruk elected a new parliament in June, meant to replace the existing National Assembly. Contested by the existing parliament, whose membership is reticent to step down, this past November the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is based in Tripoli, ruled the vote unconstitutional and called for a dissolution of the new parliament. As a sign of slight progress since then, a Libyan court in Al-Baida recently overturned this ruling, acknowledging the legitimacy of the Tobruk-based parliament. 


Tripoli, the capital city which fell in 2011 during Gaddafi’s ousting, is vaguely under the control of Operation Libya Dawn—a conglomeration of militias, many of which were involved in Gaddafi’s demise. The most powerful militias involved in this debacle, such as the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, are central to Libya Dawn. Home to the former parliament, which has yet to hand over their rule to the newly elected House of Representatives, the city is under the rule of what is at best a fractured  government.  


In addition to the Libyan participants, there are a host of outside actors involved in the conflict, including the Islamic State, Qatar, Egypt, and Saudia Arabia, to name a few. Egypt is of particular note, as they have launched airstrikes against ISIS targets within Libya, which has less to do with the state itself and more to do with the fight against ISIS.


The United Nations, through UNSMIL, is attempting to broker peace talks between the two governments, but this process has been problematic for a multitude of reasons—not least of which is the fact that much of the violence is being perpetrated by actors who are not at the table in Geneva. Even if the two main parties agree to a ceasefire, instability will continue until the militias agree to the peace process.  


After a failure to reach any resolution in Geneva, the talks were moved back to the country and resumed on February 11, in the southern city of Ghadames. The hope was that these renewed negotiations would see more representatives at the table, and more progress than those in previous weeks.


The goal at this point is to halt the emerging civil war, which has already seen war crimes and human rights abuses from all sides. Even with the supposedly agreed to ceasefire, with fractured leadership and various militias involved, it’s hard to believe a break in the fighting can be maintained. As of February 23, the internationally backed government in Tobruk has backed out of the peace talks, leaving very little hope for their success.



In the Shadow of an “Unfinished” Intervention

Once touted as an example of successful intervention by NATO, Libya is now a prime example of what happens when intervening states forget how crucial it is to maintain a commitment to rebuilding and stabilizing a region post-intervention. What has also become clear is how shifting from an R2P intervention focused on civilian protection to a NATO mission geared toward regime change has ultimately left the people of Libya caught in a precarious position—rid of Gaddafi but now fighting for survival in a civil war featuring violent militias and outside groups, including ISIS.


If NATO is going to take over a mission initially established under R2P, the military alliance needs to acknowledge the ongoing commitment that comes with that decision. Further, if UN member states are going to claim they have a responsibility to protect civilians, they must also acknowledge the entirety of that responsibility. Intervention does not simply mean going in guns blazing, stopping a tyrant, and then washing one’s hands of the region. R2P has three pillars (Prevent, React, Rebuild) for a reason, and each of them is equally as important. Leaving without fulfilling the Responsibility to Rebuild—NATO’s and the UN’s failure in Libya—simply opens the door to future conflicts and future instability in the country. 


Looking at Libya specifically, the point is simply this: if an intervening force is going to eliminate the leadership of a country (which many would tell you should not have been the goal in Libya), then those intervening must fully commit to the building of new leadership. They must fully commit to the long haul of creating a stable environment in which the citizens might start to rebuild their government. If the international community is going to consider itself as just that—a community—it can’t continue to let the predictable post-intervention chaos ensue. While preventing a reoccurrence of violence may not always be possible, those who choose to intervene ought to at least not walk away and pretend the problem has been resolved, leaving the most vulnerable to suffer the consequences.


As Thomas G. Weiss, who served as the Research Director of ICISS noted, “dilemmas remain as Libya—a weak state with no history of democracy and plenty of evidence of feuds and bitterness, as well as 200,000 militia—hurtles headlong into a new era without the kind of post-intervention support that the West provided in Kosovo.”


A state in shambles cannot rebuild itself. It depends on the assistance of the international community—of the United Nations, of neighboring states, and of NGOs. As capable as the Libyan people may be, in the wake of a violent dictator like Gaddafi, to rebuild without international assistance is an unreasonable goal. Libya was always going to need years of support to achieve stability and establish a viable government. Libya was always going to need massive amounts of international funding to rebuild. Libya was always going to see setbacks. Libya was always going to be more than a 222-day mission.


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently referred to the intervention in Libya as an “unfinished mission.” He called on the United Nations to establish yet another intervention in the state, underscoring his belief that the international community abandoned the Libyan people. His interest, however, seems to have only been peaked with the rise of ISIS—an interest strengthened by their recent attack on Egyptian nationals within Libya’s borders. Regardless, his sentiment about Libya being an unfinished mission has merit. 


Looking through the many statements and resolutions coming out of the United Nations, it is clear that on paper there was acknowledgement of the strong need for the international community to stand by the people of Libya—not just in words but in actions. But a UN mandate is only as strong as the support it is given by UN members states. And as we have seen, support for UNSMIL has most definitely been waning since 2011. 



Armaments in Libya.  Credit: UNMIS



The Cycle Continues

In recent weeks, Libya has found itself back in the spotlight, thanks in large part to ISIS. There is the fear that the country has become a breeding ground for terrorism. While the Libyan people have deserved the attention and assistance of the international community for the last four years, it took the emergence of an outside actor within its borders to spark interest. Ultimately, this interest is not in the safety of the Libyan people, but in making strides in the so-called global war on terror. ISIS is terrible to be sure, but an intervention focused solely on their elimination does very little for the long-term security of the Libyan people.


Sisi’s call for another UN intervention is complicated, as there is the potential to simply repeat 2011. The likely outcome of international action is an intervention which ignores the needs of the Libyan people and focuses only on ISIS—the new collective enemy. While eliminating ISIS from the region might be necessary, what will such an intervention leave in its wake if it is solely focused on the elimination of a terrorist organization? Taking ISIS out of the picture will serve the same purpose as removing Gaddafi from power. It does not solve Libya’s problems, nor does it give the Libyan people the stability they need to rebuild their state.



Libya, R2P, Humanitarian Intervention, Muammar Gaddafi, United Nations, NATO