Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Right Intervention Mix For Libya

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 12/03/2011

The question of whether foreign powers should intervene in the fighting in Libya to prevent Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from attacking civilians has generated great debate around the world.

The matter is particularly complex because it includes humanitarian, legal, political and logistical military dimensions that need to be reconciled. It becomes doubly complicated when the question revolves around American intervention specifically, given the ugly history of unilateral militarism by the United States and its double standards in other cases of state brutality and civilian mass suffering around the Middle East.

Since the events in Rwanda, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the past two decades, the international “obligation to protect” civilians being wantonly killed, injured or ethnically cleansed is now widely accepted. But how and when to do so, and what triggers such intervention, remains widely disputed. The Libyan situation makes this an immediate and real issue once again.

My view is that international intervention is now appropriate in Libya, on the assumption that the majority of citizens have declared their desire to end the Gadhafi regime and re-establish a truly inclusive, representative and democratic system of governance. Yet such intervention – whether political, humanitarian or military – should only happen if it is based on three critical prerequisites: a credible call by the Libyan people for such assistance; Arab-Islamic-African support for such a move through the respective inter-state organizations grouping these countries; and the legitimacy derived from a United Nations Security Council resolution.

The first and last requirements are probably already available. However, securing Arab-Islamic-African agreement on foreign intervention might be difficult, given that governments define organizations like the Arab League, and they are probably loath to agree to such intervention because they might be the target of the same kind of action later on.

If collective Arab approval of foreign intervention is difficult to achieve through the Arab League, it is probably best to rely on state-by-state support for such a move rather than wait for a collective nod that may never come. The fine points of such a discussion can be debated for months, but Libyans are being killed on a daily basis and are suffering new atrocities at the hand of the Gadhafi regime. So a decision is needed quickly if the situation is to be tempered and the Libyan people’s wishes are to be reflected in a change of Libya’s governance system and its ruling elite.

Degrees of misconduct, human rights denials and outright savagery across the region require different kinds of responses. Libya today reminds us that these questions only arise in the heat of battle, when the urgency to intervene and protect civilians is most compelling.

In some Arab countries, governments and others who use force have been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands, or in some cases like Sudan, millions of their own citizens. In another regional case, Israel has savagely attacked Lebanese and Palestinian lands, killed thousands, imprisoned thousands more, colonized and ethnically cleansed Palestinian lands, and laid siege to Gaza to the point where children’s growth is stunted due to a lack of sufficient nutrition.

The difficult question arises then: Why should the world intervene in Libya if it does not intervene to stop the killing and suffering caused by the policies of governments, whether Arab and Israeli, in other parts of the Middle East? Why sanction Iran for concerns about hypothetical acts it might commit in the future on the nuclear front, when the same international community quietly acquiesces in mass human rights denials in many Arab countries?

My response is that Libyans fighting for their liberty need assistance, and if military intervention is difficult, then other forms of solidarity should be quickly considered: recognizing the opposition National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people; sending in large amounts of humanitarian and other aid; applying available international legal measures to pressure the Gadhafi regime; and sending military supplies if the National Council asks for them.

It is clear that the Gadhafi regime has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of its own people and most of the world, and therefore the world should act firmly both politically and with regard to humanitarian aid to help the National Council achieve a transition to a new governance system. Direct foreign military action is a much more complex issue because using military force against Libya is an act of war that plays havoc with existing international legal principles. It also fails to explain why we are seeking to use force in one country while ignoring others suffering the pain of equally distasteful government policies?

Under the current circumstances, the world should immediately act on the ground politically in a manner that emphatically supports the Libyan National Council, until critical international political legitimacy is in place to use military force if needed.

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