Humanitarian Intervention in Libya: Recognizing and Addressing the Gap between Normative Progress and Practical Problems

The approval and implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and the subsequent NATO led intervention in Libya against the dictatorial rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi have signalled the first time in history, NATO’s declaration of war against an Arab country. Additionally, with the usage of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) schema as part of the Libyan intervention, the international community bore witness to the first instance of a “military intervention in a sovereign state against the express will of that state’s government.”[1] Undoubtedly, while the events in Libya have exemplified the normative progressive achieved by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s (ICISS; 2001) R2P model, the ethico-legal and practical difficulties and mistakes conducted by NATO, serve to illustrate the sizeable gap in transforming the normative and discursive progress of the R2P - into practice.

The ICISS’ R2P has been garnering increasing traction amongst members of the International community ever since its inception in 2001. Having been borne out of the resultant failures of the International community to respond to mass civilian atrocities perpetrated in ‘the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda and Darfur’ (to name a few)[2], many scholars such as Thomas Weiss have proclaimed the R2P doctrine to signal ‘the dawn of a new era’ in relation to the protection of innocent civilians in cases of mass atrocities such as “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”[3] Furthermore, the Commission’s success in promulgating the human security oriented ideational features of doctrine became increasingly evident, with the UN having adopted the R2P ‘as part of its unanimous approval of the 2005 World Summit outcome document’[4] and subsequently having achieved UNSC endorsement in 2006.

NATO’s intervention in Libya, under the title of Operation Unified Protector (OUP), arguably exhibited the first full-fledged military engagement (by NATO) in an Arab Country. While the western mainstream narrative of OUP (March 31st-October 31 2011), mostly run in conjunctions with the opinions of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as “one of the most remarkable (operations) in NATO’s history” which “was brought to a successful conclusion seven months after its start”[5]; an observation and analyses of the ethico-legal and practical problems faced by NATO in Libya reveal that there is still a great deal left to be done (in terms of refining R2P’s practical scope). Below, I discuss the main reasons for why NATO’s OUP leaves much to be desired for those fighting for the solid institutionalization of R2P:

  1. Regime Change
    1. Of all the criticisms that plague NATO’s operations in Libya, the most decisive has to do with NATO’s role in the the facilitation of regime change. It is generally felt that even if NATO’s initial role in Libya did not include the onset of regime change, the increasing passage of time blurred the difference between civilian protection and regime change. Such allegations are alarming, since NATO’s UNSC endorsed mandate in Libya, clearly excluded regime change as mission objective. Still, allegations over NATO’s use of “disproportionate force” (against the Gadaffi regime), the conduct of aggressive aerial strikes in pro-Gaddafi strongholds where there were no (regime based) threats to civilians, and NATO’s abject complacency in attempting to forge any genuine cease-fire/peace dialogue (and instead overwhelmingly aiding the rebels who rejected any cease-fire proposals) – have led many to accuse NATO of contributing to a protracted conflict and having unnecessarily increased civilian casualties and levels of violence. In fact, had NATO been serious about protecting civilians, it would have made its aid to the rebel groups conditioned upon the rebel’s serious consideration of the regime’s offers to start a peaceful dialogue. Thus, according to such an account, regime change in Libya has largely been fostered by two related activities: NATO’s use of “disproportionate force”[6] against the regime and pro-Gadaffi forces and its almost non-existent efforts to forge a cease-fire or negotiations between the two sides.
  2. Actions conducted by NATO that constitute a breach of the UNSC mandate
    1. An explicit component of NATO’s mandate in Libya was the express forbiddance of “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”[7] However, many notable scholars such as Gaub, find that there was in fact a ‘crucial ground component that can be attributed to any claimed success achieved by NATO.’[8] In addition, Gaub criticizes the contemporary pro-western dominated literature (on the subject of Libya) and finds that the literature ‘ignores the ground element of OUP, because it was not under NATO’s operational control.’[9] The elements of this ground component include: the Libyan rebel’s (helped by NATO operations), actions of non-member, some member states and Arab league states. Moreover, OUP members such as Qatar and the UAE did not (as they were supposed to) “notify the UN in time or adequately” of its actions on the ground, which constituted: ‘the transfer of weapons to the rebels, military technology, and military personnel.’[10] When questioned about the specified allegations, the UAE replied “NATO would be in a better position to answer those questions,”[11] thus implying NATOs implicit acknowledgement of these infringing actions. Moreover, reports of Western countries such as the UK, in announcing the deployment of ‘military experts to advise the rebels in eastern Libya’[12] and the US in ‘approving covert aid to the rebels,’[13] clearly display a further blatant violation and disrespect for both the R2P schema and the parameters set by the UNSC’s mandate (by NATO).
  3. Collateral Damage
    1. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also severely criticized NATO for its callous actions that led to collateral damages. Within the western media, NATO’s actions have been labelled as ‘air campaigns of unparalleled precision, which greatly minimized collateral damage.’[14] What I am arguing here, is not for a perfect act of intervention which completely denies the possibility for collateral damages, I am however arguing that there is a need for NATO to officially accept any mistakes committed by its forces in Libya (in the name of reconciliation and proper reparatory arrangements). While collateral damage may be a part and parcel of war, Amnesty International investigations show that ‘dozens of civilians have been killed in NATO airstrikes on private homes in residential and rural areas, with no evidence of military objectives at the strike locations at the time of the strikes.’[15] It holds NATO guilty for violations of “International Humanitarian Law” (IHL) and for failing to ‘investigate, acknowledge and (event attempt to) mend’[16] the injustice perceived by innocent civilian victims of NATO’s actions. These studies have further been substantiated by the UN International Commission of Inquiry on Libya (ICIL). Such failures hurt NATO, its intervention and the future prospects of R2P ethico-legally and practically by promoting resentment and also questioning NATO’s capacity to legitimately (and efficiently) conduct future interventionist missions.

4. Spill-over effects

    1. NATO’s intervention in Libya also led to a regional spill over that garnered severe condemnation from the international system. Before the instability brought about by the spillover effect, Mali was hailed as “the region’s exceptional example of peace and democracy.”[17] The intervention in Libya, with a lack of ground forces, resulted in the launch of a radical Islamist rebellious movement (Ansar Dine) by Mali’s Radical Tuareg group of fighters. The rebellion was facilitated by the smuggling of “large quantities of weapons and ammunition”[18] out of Libya by members of the Libyan army, mercenaries and other groups in the region. Ultimately, the spillover led to Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, being “deposed” as a consequence of internal military pressures and the actions of radical groups.[19] Douthat acknowledges the practical problems for the future of R2P posed by the spillover in stating that the events “should complicate the Libya hawks’ easy moralism.”[20] Douthat concludes that ‘interventionists who want to claim credit for saving lives in Benghazi’ are obligated to ‘recognize how the adverse effects of their choices lead to deaths in Timbuktu.’[21]
  1. Questions over whether the situation in Libya was ever serious enough to call for HI
    1. Lastly, the present civilian casualty figures display a great degree of inconsistency that poses problems in evaluating the practical success of the Libyan intervention. According to Kuperman’s analyses, initial death tolls and later casualty figures projected by the Western media and the National Transitional Council (NTC) were ‘greatly inflated’[22] (in order to mobilize an intervention). In terms of the potential figures, it is argued that without a NATO intervention, “the conflict would have lasted approximately six weeks and inflicted about 1,100 deaths.”[23] This is as a result of Gadaffi aiming for a swift and decisive victory that was quashed by NATO’s intervention, leading to a prolonged conflict. With the NATO intervention, Kuperman considers the death toll be more than 8,000 peoples[24]. It is however, acknowledged that it would be wrong to presume that a quick victory by Gadaffi would have reigned in peace, where it could very well have been that Gadaffi “would have rounded up and summarily executed large numbers of suspected rebels.”[25] Gaub also finds that there was a great degree of bias, lack of oversight, and inconsistencies in the reporting of civilian casualty tolls, where Gaub states that figures released by the Libyan Health Ministry do not differentiate between “between civilians, Qaddafi forces, or rebel fighters,” ultimately leading to manipulated causality figures which are “very likely to be inflated by possibly 50 percent.”[26] Such inconsistencies place a further question mark over Libyan intervention and the major factors that encouraged the powers to call for an intervention in Libya. It advances the need to question whether an intervention was even necessary (if Gadaffi could have brought a quick and efficient end to the conflict) and whether there were more than just humanitarian reasons for mobilizing UNSCR 1973.

An analysis of the events in Libya have therefor shown that there is a great deal more to be done if the gap between the failures of R2P in practice are to be reconciled with the normative (and discursive) progressive achieved by the R2P. Szende addresses “the charge of inconsistency or selectivity”[27] as a spoiler to further progress for the R2P. Welsh and Morris have furthered this line of thinking in arguing that, due to the complications emerging from the intervention in Libya, “the prospects for future invocations of R2P as a basis for intervention by force are now significantly diminished.”[28][29] Ultimately, the point being made is not that the idea of a humanitarian intervention (R2P) needs to be scrapped outright, but rather, the need for addressing the inadequacies of NATOs intervention is crucial to securing the future of R2P and similarly threatened populations.






[1] Morris, Justin. "Libya and Syria: R2P and the Spectre of the Swinging Pendulum." International Affairs 89.5 (2013): 1265-283. Print.

[2] Weiss, Thomas G. Humanitarian Intervention. Cambridge: Polity, 2012. 56. Print.

[3] Evans, Gareth, Mohamed Sahnoun, Gisele Cote-Harper, Lee Hamilton, Michael Ignatieff, Vladimir Lukin, Klauss Naumann, Cyril Ramaphosa, Fidel Ramos, Cornelio Sommaruga, Eduardo Stein, and Ramesh Thakur. Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Rep. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001. Print.

[4] Morris, Justin. "Libya and Syria: R2P and the Spectre of the Swinging Pendulum." International Affairs 89.5 (2013): 1265-283. Print.

[5] Rasmussen, Anders Fogh. "Secretary General’s Annual Report 2011." North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO, 26 Jan. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

[6] Okeke, Jide M. "Why NATO Intervention in Libya Is Not a Victory for Responsibility to Protect." Institute for Security Studies. ISS, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

[7] New York. United Nations. Security Council. S/RES/1973. By UNSC. U.N. Security Council, 17 Mar. 2011. Web. 05 Jan. 2014. <>.

[8] Gaub, Florence. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Libya: Reviewing Operation Unified Protector. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2013. Print.

[9] Gaub, Florence. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Libya: Reviewing Operation Unified Protector. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2013. Print.

[10] Ibid

[11] Borger, Julian, and Martin Chulov. "Al-Jazeera Footage Captures 'western Troops on the Ground' in Libya." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 31 May 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

[12] Wintour, Patrick, and Richard Norton-Taylor. "Libyan Opposition Leaders to Get Advice from UK Military." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Mar. 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

[13] Hosenball, Mark. "Exclusive: Obama Authorizes Secret Help for Libya Rebels." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 01 Mar. 0030. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

[14] Daalder, Ivo H., and James G. Stavridis. "NATO's Victory in Libya." Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, Mar.-Apr. 2012. Web. 03 Mar. 2014.

[15] Amnesty International. Libya: The Forgotten Victims of NATO Strikes. London: Amnesty International Publications, 2012. Print.

[16] Ibid

[17] Kuperman, Alan J. "A Model Humanitarian Intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign." International Security 1st ser. 38 (2013): 105-36. Print.

[18] George, Princy M. "The Libyan Crisis and the Western Sahel: Emerging Security Issues." Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. IDSA, 14 Aug. 2012. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. <>.

[19] Lye, Ian, and Monika Roszkowska. Insurgency, Instability, Intervention: A Snapshot of Mali and the Sahel Region Threat Landscape. N.p.: Thomson Reuters Acceleus, 2013. Print.

[20] Douthat, Ross. "Libya’s Unintended Consequences." The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 July 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2014. <>.


[22] Kuperman, Alan J. "A Model Humanitarian Intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign." International Security 1st ser. 38 (2013): 105-36. Print.

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Gaub, Florence. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Libya: Reviewing Operation Unified Protector. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2013. Print.

[27] Szende, Jeniffer. "Selective Humanitarian Intervention: Moral Reason and Collective Agents." Journal of Global Ethics 2012th ser. 8.1 (2012): 63-76. Print.

[28] Morris, Justin. "Libya and Syria: R2P and the Spectre of the Swinging Pendulum." International Affairs 89.5 (2013): 1265-283. Print.

[29] Welsh, Jeniffer. "Civilian Protection in Libya: Putting Coercion and Controversy Back into RtoP." Ethics and International Affairs 25.3 (2011): 255-63. Print.