Libya: ‘protecting civilians’ vs ‘supporting the rebels’

Debate on the Left about foreign intervention in Libya has thus far focused on three main actors: Qadhafi, 'the rebels' and 'the West'. The legitimacy of or justification for the military campaign now being led by NATO has been defended or critiqued mainly using these three referents. Was Qadhafi ever a progressive? What are the West's motivations? Who are the rebels?

In this context, there seems to be one rather large and important actor in Libya which is most certainly relevant to the debate around intervention but has in many respects been overlooked. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 discusses this actor at length, including in its most-quoted and debated-over section, where it authorises members states to “take all necessary measures”. Measures to do what? To “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack”.

'Civilians' constitute the forth actor relevant to the debate. Yet while this actor is the largest in Libya and the one most affected by the civil war, it is the one least able to speak for itself and publicly articulate its own demands.

Of an estimated population of 6.4 million, over 450,000 people have now fled Libya to neighbouring countries. Thousands remain stranded at borders with Tunisia and Egypt, and hundreds at borders with Algeria and Niger, many of them third-country nationals. UNHCR is currently trying to determine the number of internally displaced people in different areas, including Tripoli. UNHCR is also trying to evacuate refugees and asylum seekers from Misrata, where a World Food Program charter ship with hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid has finally arrived. On the general living circumstances of civilians in areas experiencing fighting, it's worth quoting a recent OCHA press release:

“[A]ccess is still a problem and reports indicate an ongoing urgent need for medical supplies and personnel, civilian protection, potable water, food and other supplies in Misrata and surrounding areas. Landmines, abandoned munitions and unexploded ordnances continue to pose a serious threat to civilians and children in particular.”

It's also worth quoting the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos:

“We are very concerned about people trapped in Misrata, including migrant workers. Because of the heavy fighting, they are unable to leave the city for safer locations[…] Now is a time when people’s ability to move is a life or death matter. We need a temporary cessation of hostilities in the area so that people can get themselves and their families out of harm’s way, if they choose to do so.”

It might seem strange to say that civilians have been left out of the debate over the Libyan intervention. Haven't we been constantly debating whether what NATO is now doing will protect civilians or put them in further harm's way? While true, the discussion of civilians has not really extended much beyond this dilemma. This is a problem because it means we ignore the key point being raised by the UN and other humanitarian agencies: so long as armed conflict in Libya continues, with or without NATO intervention, civilians are in danger of being killed or injured. This should be the key point too for progressives debating how they should respond to this civil war.

It's certainly a valid argument against continued NATO military action that such action is likely to prolong violence and thus endanger civilians. But a clearer view of the protection of civilians also bears in important ways on the issue of our supporting one side or the other in this conflict. Active solidarity with those labelled 'the rebels' – assisting in their advance across the country, providing them with arms, giving them legitimacy within our own discourse over the conflict – has very real potential to prolong violence as well. And as Muftah Etwild of the Libya Red Crescent recently pointed out, it's in the areas where fighting is happening that relief organisations don't know what's going on and cannot fully travel. One group of NGOs' estimate at the start of the month was that four million people, including at least a million children, were in inaccessible areas. “A humanitarian crisis may be unfolding in the west of the country, and at the moment we are powerless to help because we can't reach them,” said Gareth Owens of Save the Children.

The absolute priority, then, should be to explore ways to bring about a cessation of hostilities in Libya; 'solidarity' with anti-Qadhafi forces should not overrule this priority. African Union mediators have only now been given permission to enter Tripoli to meet with Qadhafi, having previously been denied permission to land in Libya in order to carry out the AU panel's mandate of negotiating a settlement. At this stage, the Western elite narrative of 'Qadhafi must go' has gathered such momentum, and the rebels such legitimacy, that these negotiations are likely to be tangled and protracted. In sum, the longer conflict continues, the harder it is to protect civilians and the more complicated negotiations for a political settlement will become.

Another aspect of the priority shift I'm arguing for would be to acknowledge the possibility that 'rebel forces' could carry out attacks on civilians. Indeed, we already know this is the case, with the UN refugee agency last month having highlighted “increasing accounts of violence and discrimination in Libya against sub-Saharan Africans in both the rebel-held east and the Government-controlled west”. More recently, Inter Press Service has reported that migrant workers from sub-Saharan African countries have been targeted in rebel-held areas: “[m]any have been detained, hundreds have been injured in attacks by angry crowds, and some have been lynched”. (Michael McGehee here on Znet has done a good job of collecting together various reports of discrimination against black Africans during the uprising.)

It's also crucial to keep in mind that, as Asli Bali pointed out just as foreign intervention got under way, there are civilians on both geographical sides of this civil war. This includes the cities under control of Qadhafi such as Tripoli, where civilians are reported as suffering from aerial bombardment and food price inflation. As reports have indicated, attacks on Qadafi strongholds to allow rebels to advance carries with it the very real danger of civilian casualties. It should also be considered what might happen should rebel forces reach such strongholds. Robert Fisk put this point rather well recently, asking whether, if rebels did reach Tripoli, we would be willing to sanction “revenge killings, public hangings, the kind of treatment Gaddafi's criminals have meted out for many a long year”.

Those who want the rebels to win this civil war need to be willing to accept the consequences of uncritical support of an armed political opposition movement, one with its own internal dynamics that we haven't thus far been able to fully judge. Supporting 'the rebels' is not necessarily equal to protecting civilians. If progressives outside Libya think the former is worth pursuing at the possible cost of compromising on the latter, they need to make that argument, rather than fudge their words with talk of 'support for the people of Libya'.

Having become hooked to the narrative of an 'Arab Spring', the Left has been keen to show its public support for uprisings in Middle East and African countries, including in Libya. Once Western leaders started to show their public support for those uprisings, we rightly became sceptical of our governments' subsequent actions, including the military intervention in Libya. We've rightly argued against equating, as our leaders have done, the toppling of Qadhafi with the protection of civilians. Yet many of us have ourselves equated the protection of civilians with largely uncritical support for 'the rebels'. This too should be problematised.

I look forward to Qadhafi being forced from political office – hopefully resulting in him standing trial for what he's done in his own country and across the African continent. But I cannot take part in a narrative whereby the lives of civilians can be overruled by the political ambitions of a movement of opposition groups and questionable individuals. We should be pushing for things such as a temporary ceasefire, an humanitarian corridor, evacuation of war refugees, food and medical supply lines, and a political settlement that ensures civilian lives are not put at further immediate risk. We should not be pushing for a continuation of a bloody civil war where, ultimately, civilians will likely be the main victims.

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