Libya & the Folly of International Intervention by Sami Hermez*

Calls for international intervention to end the conflict in Libya have come from across the political spectrum and have even included Libyan voices, such as the country’s delegation to the United Nations.  These calls, especially on the part of Libyans, are surely motivated by a belief that the international community, with all its power, must have some tools at its disposal to put real pressure on Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi to cease the bloodshed and step down as the country’s leader.  However, some calls for international engagement with the Libyan conflict have also been motivated by a disingenuous desire to reassert international credibility and U.S. leadership in the world. To the extent that these intentions are the guiding light, the international community’s interventionist policy, including the recently passed UN Security Council Resolution 1970 imposing sanctions on Libya, is dangerous, misguided and irresponsible.

The Arms Embargo

One of the measures approved by the UN includes an arms embargo, preventing foreign governments and arms manufacturers from selling weapons to the Libyan government. Since the predominant fear here is less that Libya might sell arms on the international market and more that western arms companies might supply Libya with reinforcements and spare parts, the international community should have included measures for monitoring these companies and subjecting them to sanctions or other forms of accountability for non-compliance. By merely placing an arms embargo on Libya, without establishing a means of holding arms purveyors who violate the ban accountable for their actions, the United Nations has allowed the international community and arms manufacturers to escape accountability and complicity for any trade occurring with the Libyan government. Furthermore, it underscores the United Nation’s unwillingness to police members of its community, who may be clandestinely supporting the Libyan regime, and thereby betrays the interests of the Libyan people.

Referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC)

Another tool that the UN adopted in Resolution 1970 is to refer Qaddafi and his associates to the ICC.  While this may be a noble response, one cannot but wonder at its inconsistency, given the international community’s failure to take similar action against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and former Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who committed no less atrocious acts of violence during recent uprisings in their countries. This lack of consistency, on the part of the international community, has, in reality, given Qaddafi yet another rhetorical weapon, as he can now claim to be the victim of “selective justice”.

More importantly, however, we must ask what good such threats of possible criminal action will have on the Qaddafi regime’s ongoing activities. While eventual ICC prosecution may be an effective mechanism of accountability in the long term, the investigation and trial will likely come only after the damage has been done, leaving us to question its effectiveness in the present and near future. A number of Libyan diplomats have suggested that such a move, while unlikely to have any impact on Qaddafi, who has vowed to die a martyr in Libya, may push those close and loyal to him to defect, in fear of eventual ICC prosecution should they continue to be involved with the ongoing systematic murders. Yet, this logic is hardly full proof, as has been made clear by the international community’s failed economic sanctions regimes against Iraq and Zimbabwe. Though economic sanctions are different in many ways from the specter of criminal prosecution, both carry the threat of punishment, often times without any teeth or means of enforcement (witness the ICC’s indictment of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, who has yet to be brought for trial before the court). Just as economic sanctions did more to embolden rather than weaken the leaders of Zimbabwe and Iraq, so too may criminal sanctions strengthen Qaddafi’s hold on his supporters. This result may be more pronounced with regards to those loyalists who have already committed grave violations and have passed a point of no return.

The Freezing of Assets

On the surface, this element of Resolution 1970 seems to be the most effective and quickest means of responding to the on-going conflict, though again an element of inconsistency is present, as similar moves were not taken against Mubarak or Ben Ali.  Nonetheless, freezing the assets of Qaddafi and other regime elites cannot solve the immediate crisis, anymore than such measures have been effective in the past against recalcitrant regimes, such as in the case of Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As with any future ICC prosecution, the most such a measure is likely to do is restore some sense of justice in the future should the Libyan courts ever be able to retrieve this money.


Having survived for so long as an international pariah under the thumb of sanctions, Qaddafi is unlikely to be broken by the United Nation’s current attempts to marginalize and isolate him. More dangerously, these international interventions may, as in the past, serve to strengthen rather than weaken the reviled dictator.

However, the sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council do not only expose the international community’s weakness and misguided intentions. They also reveal the hypocrisy of the United States and its European allies, who have long worked to delegitimize and weaken the United Nations. While appearing at the moment as friends of the Libyan people, the United States has long flouted and undercut the power of the United Nations, most notably, in its decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In the drama surrounding Resolution 1970, Russia and China have been depicted as heartless beasts, seemingly attempting to slow down passage of the resolution and diluting its language. But perhaps, inadvertently, in their non-interventionist agendas – which they ultimately abandoned in favor of international consensus – the Russians and Chinese had it right: After years of delegitimizing the UN system, turning to it now reeks of hypocrisy and national interests, rather than an altruistic desire to improve the plight of the Libyan people.

Fears of Military Intervention

On the flip side of the current interventionist debates is the specter of military intervention, which has so far been avoided but which remains an option. The fact that the White House has made statements to this effect, and that NATO, which is a military organization, held an emergency meeting last week to discuss the Libyan situation, already implies a first mobilization towards the threat of force. However, should military intervention become a seriously considered strategy for dealing with Qaddafi, there is little doubt that it would be categorically rejected by Libyans, and hopefully by the UN Security Council member states.

Military intervention comes in many forms, such as all out invasion, targeted strikes, military and arms support for opposition forces, and an enforcement of a no-fly zone.  Indeed, while many have called for a no-fly zone, this would effectively equal military intervention, since its enforcement would entail patrolling the Libyan skies, shooting down planes and otherwise disabling the Libyan air force, a scenario that would surely win Qaddafi many more supporters. At the same time, aiding opposition forces by supplying them with military capabilities will only make it easier for Qaddafi and his loyalists to cast these forces as unpatriotic tools of “Western” interests, confirming the regime’s original accusations about the West’s purported role in fomenting the current unrest and intensifying the fighting. In fact, the provision of military equipment to the opposition may be less than necessary, at least in the near term. After liberating large swaths of the country, the Libyan opposition has taken control of much military equipment for use in defending their gains and marching on the capital, Tripoli, increasing hopes that they may be able to liberate the entire country, without any outside assistance.

So What Can Be Done?

After pandering to Qaddafi for the last several years, the international community cannot redeem itself by claiming a newfound moral high ground in the wake of the Libyan people’s revolt and sacrifices.  Again and again, the Libyan people have taken heroic stands, surpassing the expectations of nearly all outside observers.  And, at the moment, they appear poised to liberate their country step by step, aided only by their courage and resilience.

Given these circumstances, the most effective step the international community could take would be to encourage, with the strongest words possible, the safe-passage of Qaddafi to a country of exile. This is not meant to close off the possibility of other outcomes as determined by the Libyan people. However, in the interest of the Libya, which should be of the foremost concern, Qaddafi must be sent into exile, in order to stop the current bloodshed. This means reversing the requirements of Resolution 1970, which prohibit Qaddafi from leaving the country with a few exceptions, a state of affairs that would do little more than encourage him to continue the fighting.  In short, the more Qaddafi is cornered and isolated, the more likely he is to resort to additional violence. While Qaddafi himself may be disinclined to flee the country, as some of his public comments have suggested, the international community’s support of such an option would be more in keeping with the interests of the Libyan people than many of the other recently adopted measures.

The international community should also focus its efforts on providing humanitarian assistance to the Libyan people and act swiftly on paragraph 26 of Resolution 1970, which calls for humanitarian aid.


Unfortunately, it appears that national interests and opportunism, rather than altruism and humanitarianism, are guiding Western governments and the international community’s response to the conflict inside Libya. Under the guise of protecting human rights, the international community, with the United States at its helm, seems eager to redeem its image by capitalizing on the revolutionary spirit now sweeping the Arab world, and to position itself as the savior of Libya in the hopes of securing the   allegiance of any future government. Yet, the major global powers dominating the UN Security Council have spent years delegitimizing the role of the international community, thereby foreclosing effective forms of intervention at the Libyan people’s hour of need.

At the same time, there are influential voices from inside Libya who have warned against international intervention, such as the former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdul-Jalil who has been appointed to lead an interim national government out of Benghazi. As such, the Libyan opposition seems quite aware of the politics behind the international community’s interventionism, and one can only hope that it is able to reject any Western or international interference that may co-opt the people’s power.


* Sami Hermez received his PhD in Anthropology from Princeton University, and is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for Lebanese Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.