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Libya and the myth of 'humanitarian intervention'

Paul Stevenson

November 23, 2011

The Conservative government is using the war in Libya to revive the concept of “humanitarian intervention” and to justify massive increases in military spending. Stephen Harper has argued that Canada should use its military for regime change around the world.

Echoing Harper, Foreign Affairs minister John Baird bragged in his recent United Nations speech that Canada has flown ten per cent of the bombing runs over Libya, adding that he wouldn’t hesitate to unleash the Canadian Forces abroad.

This is nothing new. NATO countries have peddled the myth of “humanitarian militarism” since the end of the Cold War—to justify NATO’s existence once the Eastern Bloc had dissolved, and to muster support for military interventions from the Balkans to Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s the same old sheep’s clothing for the imperial wolves, and a cause of confusion for liberals in the West who are swayed by arguments about “protecting civilians” from dictatorial regimes.

Foreign intervention

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine is an attempt to codify this idea into international law. Conceived at a conference initiated by the Canadian government in 2001, the doctrine has subsequently been the basis for foreign intervention in Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan. But the problem for NATO planners is the catastrophe of Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both justified as “humanitarian” missions. As their real motives were exposed and the situation in both countries deteriorated, the shine quickly came off the R2P concept. This is why war in Libya is so crucial for NATO and the West.

The revolution in Libya, inspired by revolutions in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, has gone through a series of changes since it first began in February. Early protests were brutally attacked by the Gadhafi regime and quickly became an armed uprising. Initially, the movement was explicit in its opposition to foreign military intervention. As the weeks progressed, the composition of the opposition changed, with many former Gadhafi loyalists defecting and taking over the reins of the Transitional National Council (TNC). The demands of the uprising also began to change.

As socialist Simon Assaf writes: “The current leaders of the TNC owe their position to the West, and have become representatives of the Western interests in Libya. Their influence grew during the counter-offensive, as their alliance with the West brought international backing, as well as the no-fly zone and political, financial and military muscle. The young revolutionaries had little else to offer.

“These defeats deflected the revolution. The aspiration for total transformation of Libyan society was replaced by the drive for a simple change at the top—the removal of Moammar Gadhafi, his sons and a few others around the ruling circle. The faltering revolution presented imperialism with an opportunity to place itself between the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, always the opportunist, moved like a demon to implant imperialism back into North Africa.”

As the tanks surrounded Benghazi and the attacks on protesters increased, the call for foreign support from this section of the opposition hit a fever pitch, and the UN moved to pass resolution 1973 which called for a no-fly zone over Libya.

Almost immediately, NATO expanded its role from providing a no-fly zone to using air strikes to hit all military targets. Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, the overall commander of the NATO intervention, even called for an expanded bombing campaign to include buildings that “could” be used for military purposes.

The fall of Tripoli

Since the fall of Tripoli, the role of NATO has changed again, to include providing policing and security for the new government. The concern for NATO is that the movement that fought against the Gadhafi regime is made up of many different forces, each of which has its own interests and aims. These different currents are competing for some control over the future of the country. But NATO has no intention of giving up its spoils, and it needs to maintain a military presence to stop the situation from turn against it.

Libya has extensive oil fields. Western corporations are lining up to exploit these resources, to gain valuable reconstruction contracts in the country. But many of these contracts are not new. They existed under Gadhafi and are simply being revived under the TNC. These lucrative deals are a nice byproduct for Western corporations, but are not the principal reason they went to war in Libya.


The main objectives for NATO were to gain control of the country and to sever potential links with the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. NATO saw this as an opportunity to contain—and eventually roll back—the gains of the Arab Spring.

One thing is certain: the interests of NATO and the interests of the Libyan people will never be the same. As Libyans struggle to shape their post-Ghadafi future, this fact will become even more apparent.

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