Gaddafi is a dictator but this does not mean that we should suspend reason in analysing the Libyan situation.
The Security Council Resolution that authorised military intervention allowed for the protection of civilians. The resolution authorised “Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorisation conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council.”
I am convinced the no-fly zone imposed by the coalition initially fell within the mandate of this resolution to the extent that it sought to protect civilians. However, one would be hard-pressed to argue that armed rebels fighting in military zones fall within the meaning of ‘civilians’ generally accepted under international law. With the intervention of NATO, the US and other Arab countries, the war became an international armed conflict, meaning that armed rebels participating in the hostilities are classified as combatants and not civilians. It follows that the rebels do not fall within the ambit of the protection of the Security Council resolution. To the extent that NATO, the US or any other forces are providing them with help, it can be argued that such assistance is outside the limits of the Security Council authorisation.
As argued by Richard Norton Taylor, although the Security Council resolution excluded a “foreign occupation force of any form”, it was quite clear from the start that regime change was the goal. Regime change is a controversial doctrine to justify military intervention under international law. So controversial is this doctrine that it is now generally accepted that regime change, the legal basis upon which Iraq was invaded ten years ago, was wrong. It is arguably one of the main reasons why the use of force has not been invoked in the case of Zimbabwe. As such, the interpretation of the Security Council authorisation cannot be expanded to the point where it is invoked for regime change purposes in the ‘interests of civilians.’ Despite the Libyan rebels’ claim to have ‘gone it alone’, it is well-known that they received external assistance. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates contributed with covert intervention and military advisors. Britain, France and Italy provided training and communications support. The US assisted with pilotless drones and intelligence. Most recently, it has been reported that British Special Forces with the help of other countries have planned ‘Operation Mermaid Dawn’, the latest surge in the conflict for weeks. It is not correct that the rebels have waged this battle alone.
Importantly, the UN has not recognised the National Transitional Council. The UN, particularly the General Assembly, is the closest we come to a world body through which legitimacy can be expressed. The Libyan National Transitional Council was formed on 27 February 2011 to act as “the political face of the revolution.” On 23 March the Council established an Executive Board to act as a transitional government for Libya. Mahmoud Jibril was appointed as Chairman of that board stating that council now serves as the “legislative body”, and the new Executive Board will serve as the “executive body.” None of these officials is elected. It is unclear upon what basis this body has been recognised by 46 countries as the legitimate government of Libya. At the end of July this year, the head of the Libyan rebels’ armed forces and two of his aides were killed by gunmen, creating a power vacuüm at the top of the opposition military hierarchy and raising questions about who was responsible. The National Transitional Council and the coalition have swept this matter under the carpet although it is an indicator that if the transfer of power from Gaddafi’s government to any other body is not conducted properly chaos will ensue. History is replete with examples, not least Iraq, Afghanistan and perhaps even Kosovo, where foreign nations used force for regime change purposes with unintended disastrous results.
South Africa is now under pressure because it has resisted the US-sponsored resolution to unfreeze Libya’s assets for use by the rebels. And yet we must credit Jacob Zuma for not blindly joining the euphoria and stepping back to ask important questions:
Who are the rebels? What is their support base? On what basis have they been declared legitimate? Does the Council’s leader have the mandate of the people? If so, how has this been assessed? What will the Libya of the future look like? Who will be in charge? How credible are the rebels?
The war is not yet over.
Most agree that dictatorship is a vice but that should not mean that we suspend judgment and analysis in confronting it, particularly in view of the oil bonanza we all know will follow the deposition of Gaddafi. The reckless, NATO-US led transfer of power to the rebels sets a bad precedent for other African states. It is paramount to conduct a referendum in Libya to assess the Transitional National Council’s true support base and to ask the Libyan people how they would like to take their country forward. Without playing down the rebels’ contribution, the skills that are required to revolt are not necessarily the same skills that enable one to run a country. Concentrating the entire nation’s destiny solely in the hands of a few appointed people is to undermine the democratic principles it was believed were being fought for.
We ought to think carefully before we destroy a country in the name of trying to save it.