After Gaddafi: The State of International Intervention

By Ashley Drew

The recent Human Rights Council special session on Syria, which proposed the creation of an independent fact finding mission to investigate alleged human rights violations by the Syrian government on civilian protesters, produced some contextually thought provoking and potentially damaging criticism. An anti-intervention discourse emerged courtesy of the usual suspects: Cuba, Venezuela, Russia and China, who each vehemently denounced any international interference in Syria as an unacceptable breach of affairs internal to the state. How does this argument fare in light of ostensibly successful international intervention in Libya, which contributed to the victory of Libyan rebels over Muammar Gaddafi’s despotic regime?

When Libyan rebels entered Tripoli last week, in the final push that toppled Gaddafi’s regime, there were no foreign soldiers in sight. Intervention in Libya strengthened the position of the rebels whilst weakening Gaddafi’s military might. A no-fly zone was imposed, NATO airstrikes bombed strategic targets with the primary objective of avoiding civilian casualties, Gaddafi’s assets were frozen, and weapons were supplied to the rebels by Gulf States sympathetic to their cause. The culmination of these careful and bolstering strategies provided a level of assistance that allowed the Libyans to take ownership of victory.

Arguably, the conditions in Libya were ripe for positive intervention. Reports of grave human rights violations by the state against civilians surfaced. It was explicit from his rhetoric and reaction that Gaddafi would stop at nothing to quell the civilian outcry. Those caught protesting were subject to shoot-to-kill policies and state administered airstrikes. Moreover, a rebel army with the potential to defeat his regime was building and eventually requested international assistance. Had conditions been different in Libya, the strategies of intervention may not have achieved the same level of success.  

In Syria, where the tally of civilian deaths due to state-inflicted violence is now in the thousands, there is no rebel army to rival Bashar Assad’s military, and until recently, anti-regime protesters opposed international intervention. Thus, conditions in Syria hint that a Libya-style intervention may not be appropriate or helpful. Other aspects of intervention also complicate matters. Self-interested state motivations spur mainstream condemnation of intervention. The lasting scars of western activities in Iraq and Afghanistan can claim some responsibility for this. Critics of intervention in Libya claim, for instance, that motivations include prevention of further immigration to Europe and stabilisation of oil markets. Yet, the spirit of humanitarianism was clearly at the forefront of the decision to intervene in Libya. Self-interest may have been present but it did not appear to be prominent. The western invasions in response to September 11th were markedly different. Hundreds of thousands of civilians lost their lives in the Iraq war. By contrast, airstrikes in Libya resulted in few civilian casualties, and NATO has ordered a full investigation into those incidents.

Bearing past blunders in mind, it is right to be wary of intervention. Yet, some circumstances do merit the full attention and reaction of the international community. Where there is evidence of grave human rights violations by the state and a loud call for external assistance from the state’s population the international community should act to protect. States critical of international interference of any kind probably do so for political reasons. By supporting intervention due to popular civilian revolt against an authoritarian regime, China, for instance, would fall into contradiction as a major repressor of its own population. Nevertheless, the maintenance of an anti-interventionist stance promotes a culture of impunity and undermines international systems of accountability that encourage prevention of future atrocities and promote universal respect for human rights. Critics of intervention must not forget the devastating human cost and enduring damage of turning a blind eye to atrocities in Rwanda and Srebrenica.  International intervention is by no means perfect; it can be destructive and governed by political interests but it certainly deserves reassessment after Gaddafi.  

About the Author:

Ashley Drew is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. She recently graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London with a masters in International Studies.

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