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Libya 5 Years Later

By John Jacobs 

This article was previously published in the Atlantic Voices Vol 6. Nr. 9. (September 2016) Editing and republication of this article has been realized with the financial support of NATO Public Diplomacy Division.

October will mark the death of Moammar al-Qadhafi, who was deposed in a popular revolution in 2011. Five years later Libya remains trapped in a spiral of economic trouble, deteriorating security, and a political deadlock. The nation's government has suffered under a political elite who is unable to agree on anything remotely close to a basic structure as renewed violence raged the country since 2014. Though, currently at an unstable peace accord, a new, internationally recognized Government of National Accord—the product of a two-year, United Nations led process—continues its struggle to establish legitimacy and a measure of territorial control beyond the capital. The NATO-led intervention of 2011 that brought an end to the first war has put the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine back on the shelf, leaving Libya to its own devices (as well as preventing an intervention in the ongoing conflict in Syria). Thus with conflict at the maritime borders of two NATO members and three Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) partners, it is challenging for NATO to maintain its interest in the region and project stability in the southern flank. With Libya being mentioned 16 times in the Warsaw Communiqué the situation remains high on NATO’s priority list. Since 2014 a second civil war has been raging in Libya. An ongoing conflict among rival groups seeking control of the national territory, mostly between the sovereign, internationally recognized 'Tobruk government' and its rival de facto General National Congress (GNC), based in the capital Tripoli. Between these two power holders, an increasing number of rebel groups have been acting in what might best be described as a "war against all". Contemporary ideas on sovereignty might provide with an argument for a new intervention and an end to the renewed civil war, which would be a great contribution to regional and Euro- Atlantic security.

The Sovereignty Debate

In order to discuss sovereignty in the NATO context, it becomes important first to analyse what is intended when using the term sovereignty. In the constructivist view sovereignty is “constantly undergoing change and transformation” and can consequently be defined “in terms of the interactions and practices of states”. Rather than seeing the increased interventionism as a violation of sovereignty, it is to be seen as a change in the nature and understanding of sovereignty. Robert Jackson, however, makes a distinction between "negative sovereignty"; the normative framework that upholds sovereign statehood internationally, in juxtaposition with "positive sovereignty" that emerged along with the modern state. Based on Jackson’s definition, Libya, the former Italian colony falls in the first category, while the European states bordering the Mediterranean and its NATO allies constitute the second category. In practice, this means that positive sovereign state is accountable and responsible to protect its citizens, whereas the negative sovereign does not necessarily do so. A catalyst for the concept of 'sovereignty as responsibility' is Francis Deng. Appointed as the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 1993, he was confronted with the dilemma between protecting human rights and respecting state sovereignty. Deng came up with a new notion of sovereignty: sovereignty as responsibility which recognizes that “sovereignty carries with it responsibilities for the population” and, in case it fails to take on such responsibility, that “a government that allows its citizens to suffer… cannot claim sovereignty in an effort to keep the outside world from stepping in”. Like its forerunner, R2P makes the same conditionality claims to sovereignty as Deng's earlier concept. As Bellamy notes: “only those states that…fulfil their sovereign responsibilities are entitled to the full panoply of sovereign rights”. Therefore, “living up to the responsibilities of sovereignty becomes in effect the best guarantee of sovereignty”. The challenge posed to sovereignty stems from international human rights obligations. The regimes of sovereignty and human rights, which often find themselves juxtaposed or contradicting one another, are irreconcilable or are seen in zero-sum terms - “the stronger the principle of sovereignty, the weaker norms of human rights, and vice versa”. In response to the discussion on human rights obligations and sovereignty, the United Nations endorsed global political commitment to prevent human rights abuses coined as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The R2P doctrine served as a corner stone for resolution 1973, that allowed for the multi-state NATO-led military intervention in Libya, in response to the 2011 Libyan Civil War.

Intervention of 2011

The first Libyan intervention was based on the discourse of 'sovereignty as responsibility'. It was this responsibility, or the lack thereof, that justified, NATO's intervention against the government of Moammar al-Qadhafi, and coming to the aid of the Libyan population. by As we see in the preambles of resolution 1970 and 1973 there is a strong emphasis on defending the civilian population in Libya against the use of force by its own government. The same discourse comes back in the statement of the conference Chair Foreign Secretary William Hague following the London Conference on Libya of March 2011: "UNSCR 1973 (2011) authorizes all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack" and "So far, the action we have taken has been successful in protecting countless civilians from Qadhafi’s forces" After initial hesitations, NATO, acting under a mandate from the United Nations, launched Operation Unified Protector (OUP) started in March 2011, combining the imposition of an arms embargo, the enforcement of a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians. By August 2011, Tripoli fell, and in October, Qaddafi was captured and killed by rebel forces, putting an end to the operation. Fast forward to late 2011, the basis for the R2P doctrine became muddier as the intervention progressed, as it ultimately resulted in regime change and the death of Moammar al-Qadhafi although the intended goal was to stop the civil war. One may argue that Libya was both the first and the last implementation of the R2P doctrine, as this principle has neither been invoked in Syria nor Libya today despite the large number of civilian casualties in both cases. Supporters of R2P point to unethical postures by the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China, the two non-Western powers that used their veto power to block Security Council resolutions on the matter. Critics, however, argue that R2P was used to change the regime of Libya, and question the real intent of the intervention. In his address to the people of the United States in advance of the bombing campaign that was to take place a few weeks later, President Obama stressed that the protection of civilians was the intent and purpose of the intervention. Furthermore, Obama went on to add that 'regime change', while it was desirable to have Qaddafi out of power, was not part of the mission. However, ordinary citizens were indeed killed, though unintentionally, by allied bombing; regime change did occur; and, more importantly, the norm of the responsibility to protect was compromised by an overstretching of sovereignty by the Allies themselves.

Resurgence of Civil War in 2014

Between the fall of Qaddafi and 2014, Libya had a decent outlook compared with many other post-conflict regions. The rebels group that, although fragmented, banded together to oust the dictator had largely been unified; neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt which were transitioning well along democratic and political lines, had a positive influence in Libya's transition to peace. Looking back, one had little doubt that a pro-regime insurgency would arise, unlike what had happened in Iraq in 2003, as Libya stood in a much more favourable position as Iraq, being more wealthy and less populated, thus with a better propensity for stability. Because Libya's outlook was so positive postintervention, the strategy applied to stabilize the conflict differed greatly from NATO's prior interventions. There were no peacekeeping, no stabilization forces deployed. The footprint was by historical standards very limited, or at least that was supposed to be the idea. While foreign diplomats were sent to help with the transition, under the coordination of a limited UN presence, Libyans were largely left to their own devices. The situation escalated again in 2014 when the Islamist government of the General National Congress (GNC), the rival of the internationally recognized "Tobruk government" or "Libyan Government", rejected the results of the 2014 election. The GNC, which at the time controlled most of western Libya, was led by the Muslim Brotherhood and backed by a wider Islamist coalition under the name of "Libya Dawn" with the aid of Qatar, Sudan and Turkey. Although the Liberals and Centrists composed the majority in the GNC, in May 2014 the Islamists lobbied for a law "banning virtually everyone who had participated in Qaddafi’s government from holding public office". To enforce this ruling, "Armed militiamen" stormed government ministries. In December 2015 a United Nations brokered cease -fire was established and in March 2016, the leaders of a new UN-supported "unity government" arrived in Tripoli. The GNC announced in April that it suspended its operations and handed power to the new government named "Government of National Accord". However, with most members of the parliament voting for a motion of no-confidence, the unity government still has not received the approval of the House of Representatives, leaving Libya in a very vulnerable and unstable position.

Implications for Instability for NATO

The reason for concern for NATO is made vividly clear in the speech of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to the Atlantic Council in April 2016. In this speech, Stoltenberg stressed "homeland defence is not just about what we do at home. It is as much about what happens beyond our borders. Where we see fragile and failing states struggling to keep control over large portions of their territory." Indeed, Libya without a functioning government that keeps control over its sovereign territory is a security risk for the Alliance. Take for example the jihadist groups, such as the ones linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who made use of the security vacuum to establish a foothold. Libya is in a precarious situation - as are conditions in the broader Sahel and Maghreb region and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as a whole. Libya’s neighbouring countries face the same problems with Jihadist activities in Mali, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. Projecting stability and building defence capacity in the region is key when it comes to preventing that Libya becomes the kind of build-up area for ISIL like Syria has. NATO Will Not Deploy to Libya When in February of this year a faction with allegiance to ISIL made advances to Libya, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni stated that "Italy backed efforts by United Nations special envoy Bernardino Leon to bring warring factions to the table to try to broker a ceasefire". He added "should talks fail, Italy is ready to fight naturally in the context of an international mission". Such a mission might be deemed desirable in light of the securitization of migration issues that is currently burdening Europe, and in particular the Southern countries like Italy. It is within this securitization, potentially linked with the ideas of 'network theory’, that extension of sovereignty might be used to justify a new mission for NATO. It is questionable, however, if such an international mission might happen in light of the disability of the United Nations Security Council thus far with regards to the matter of Syria. It can be expected that, because R2P was rejected for Syria, the same might occur with Libya. And indeed from NATO's side there does not seem to be any intention to intervene in Libya again, or at least no mention was made of such intentions at the Warsaw Summit in July earlier this year. Nevertheless, NATO is committed to doing what it can and is willing to play its role in the Central Mediterranean. The Warsaw Declaration stresses the commitment to act outside of the sovereign territory in order to safeguard security for both NATO and its partners. To achieve these, the Declaration outlines NATO's stands to complement and support the EU led Operation Sophia should the European Union request to do so, by means of Intelligence and Surveillance capabilities and a Defence Capability Building (DCB) initiative if requested by the legitimate Libya authorities, and in the context of the implementation of UNSCR 2292 on the situation in Libya, in close coordination with the EU. Additionally, in accordance with the decisions reached in Wales in 2014, NATO is ready to provide Libya with advice in the field of defence and security institution building. This building of a long-term partnership could then potentially lead to membership in the Mediterranean Dialogue, thus building a strong foothold for NATO in North Africa alongside Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt this would be a natural framework for further cooperation in the region. In light of our earlier discussions on sovereignty, the Warsaw Declaration further stresses Libyan ownership of any action taken. Furthermore, NATO puts emphasizes on the need for close coordination with international efforts such as those of the European Union and the United Nations. These last two remarks stress again how important it is that either Libya or the EU/UN invites NATO to join in on their activities in Libya.


No new intervention is planned to stabilize Libya - should such a mission be planned it would require a different argumentation than the one used to justify the 2011 intervention for otherwise it would find opposition in the UN Security Council. Such different argumentation might be found in new ideas on sovereignty as proposed by Hardt and Negri who argue that national borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Furthermore, an increase of securitization of immigration might be used to justify an intervention outside of NATO territory. Either way, the regime of sovereignty remains under pressure of contemporary conflict and will continue to develop and adjust accordingly. For both the Libyan population and for NATO it is to be hoped that action can be taken sooner than later, least the ongoing civil war claims more unnecessary victims and further destabilizes the region, increasing the chance of its potentially spill over effects on the MENA region as a whole.


Saturday, 2 January, 2021 - 15:30