In a lecture at the Temple of Peace earlier this month, Alan Doss reminded us that the United Nations is not a pacifist organisation. In its search for peace and justice – at least when that is what its members seek – an international alliance will sometimes have to choose a violent way to bring about change. Doss, who worked for the UN throughout his career but saw his greatest challenge at the end of it, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, faced criticism from Congolese refugees who accused him of not doing enough to prevent violence there. But while the Congo’s situation may be unique in its level of depravity, with rape being used as a systematic weapon of war, it is not unique in demonstrating that where international troops intervene in a national conflict, things will inevitably get dirty. Iraq and Afghanistan provide our clearest recent examples of what can go wrong.
However, no-one who is committed to democracy or human rights should doubt that sometimes, the violence used to bring about change is justifiable when weighed against its longer-term benefits. It looks as if Libya falls into that category and, I would argue, provides a case study about which pacifists might think long and hard.
Saying this, by the way, is not the same as saying that we should ignore the abuses carried out by liberators, or that we should applaud Muammar Gaddafi’s swift and bloody execution. Plainly, the former are inexcusable in the context of a fight for freedom and democratic rights; we can only hope that reconciliation with Gaddafi loyalists is not all the harder as a result. The latter is a greyer area, as it’s clear that seeing the dictator’s corpse paraded on national television has been cathartic for Libyans, most of whom frankly had no interest in seeing him tried in court. But the justice seeker in me wishes it had been otherwise.
As many journalists noted, Gaddafi’s end looked like that of Saddam Hussein. Months after losing power, he had lost the country and his name had lost its power to terrorise. He was found in a bolthole, and despite keeping his promise to die in Libya, the end was inglorious. But attempts to draw comparisons with the actual conflict in Iraq are less fruitful.
First, this was a widely backed military intervention, endorsed by the United Nations and, perhaps more importantly, the League of Arab States. The UN resolution that decided NATO’s course stressed that this was a mission to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s attacks, under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine hammered out following the international community’s inaction in Rwanda. Gareth Evans, who co-chaired the commission that developed R2P, said:
"The international military intervention in Libya is not about bombing for democracy or Muammar Gaddafi's head… Legally, morally, politically, and militarily it has only one justification: protecting the country's people."
That was on 24 March, a few days after the action began. In the months that followed there were worldwide cries of “mission creep”, as the intervention evolved from simply protecting civilians into an all-out effort to unseat Gaddafi’s regime. But what remained constant throughout those months was that NATO essentially played a supporting role. This was a genuine popular revolution with nationwide support from those who had seen their communities beaten, starved and denied a voice for 42 years.
Secondly, Libya has seemed remarkably united behind efforts to oust the dictator, with Gaddafi loyalists evaporating to an insignificant (though well armed) minority in a relatively short time. And there seems a real hunger for democracy throughout the country, despite the recent suggestion that sharia law will hold sway. The optimistic view is that Libyans will simply not allow a strongly Islamist government to take root, and that they will prioritise their new freedoms over tribal differences. But even if they do not, Libya is still no Iraq: there is no powder keg of ethnic and religious conflict waiting to be lit, and no comparable regional influences seeking to undermine the new order.
Debate will continue to rage over the way in which NATO plainly exceeded its authority in pursuing regime change in Libya. There will also be voices raised in objection at the UN’s selective protection of Libyan civilians from their own government, when it has done little or nothing in Syria or Burma or Zimbabwe. Richard Falk at Princeton University argues that the UN needs to separate the responsibility to protect from geopolitical considerations, and proposes establishing a UN Emergency Force in future cases – similar, perhaps, to the international standing army sought by Lord David Davies, founder of the Temple of Peace.
But whatever course that debate takes, Libya does remind us that international intervention can work; that military force is a legitimate means of protecting human rights; and that pacifism as a principle is difficult to defend. What happens next will, if the peace is secured effectively over the coming months, be up to ordinary Libyans. And that’s as it should be.