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When humanitarian intervention leads to crimes against humanity

A new report finds atrocities rampant in Libya due to the civil war that sprang up in the wake of the US-led regime change.

Analysis | Africa

The hits just keep coming. When Barack Obama’s administration, along with Washington’s NATO allies, launched an air war to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, expectations were high for the future of that country once Qaddafi was gone. Instead, the result has been an ongoing horror story. 

Feuding factions have waged power struggles that created repeated flows of desperate refugees, many of them trying to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in overloaded, small boats to reach sanctuary in Europe. Other countries, including Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia have become parties to the conflict, backing their favored political and military players, thereby adding to the bloodshed and chaos. Today’s Libya is an arena for cynical proxy wars between the clients of those outside powers.

A new report from the United Nations highlights the extent of the tragedy that U.S. leaders helped unleash. The UN’s fact-finding mission identified war crimes and crimes against humanity on the part of multiple parties just since 2016. “Our investigations have established that all parties to the conflicts, including third States, foreign fighters and mercenaries, have violated international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of proportionality and distinction, and some have also committed war crimes,” Mohamed Auajjar, chair of the fact-finding mission, said in a statement. 

The report found that the violence, including attacks on hospitals and schools, “has dramatically affected economic, social and cultural rights” in Libya. It also documented the recruitment and participation of children in hostilities, as well as the disappearance and extrajudicial killings of prominent women. One member of the mission underscored reports about the continued presence of foreign fighters in the country. Those include factions who have migrated from the Syrian conflict and private mercenaries allegedly contracted by the Russia-based Wagner Group.

What a contrast to the sunny optimism with which the Obama administration viewed the initial results of its humanitarian crusade. On the eve of the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime, the president stated that “Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant. The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.” Following the dictator's capture and brutal execution, Obama asserted that “the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted” from Libya. 

Other supporters of the intervention were even more ebullient. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) concluded that “The end of the Gadhafi regime is a victory for the Libyan people and the broader cause of freedom in the Middle East and throughout the world.”  Princeton University Professor Anne Marie Slaughter, asserted that skeptics of that intervention were “proved badly wrong.” New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristof contended Libya was a reminder “that sometimes it is possible to use military tools to advance humanitarian causes.”

Information in the UN report provides additional confirmation that Libya has been a chaotic mess ever since Washington’s regime-change war. Moreover, despite a truce between the two principal factions (the internationally recognized Government of National Accord and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libya National Army), prospects for ending the chaos through elections scheduled for December are extremely fragile. 

 The abuses the UN has identified are just the latest in a long string of ugly developments. Indeed, the breakdown of social order in Libya has been so extensive that slave markets featuring captured black African migrants apparently have made a reappearance. 

Unfortunately, too many of the parties who were responsible for the Libya tragedy appear to have learned nothing from the disastrous consequences of the policies they pushed. One will look in vain in the writings of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or National Security Council staffer Samantha Power, two of the most vocal pro-intervention lobbyists within the Obama administration, for any acknowledgement of error. 

Sentiment for U.S. activism on the Libya issue remains high. Even today, there are calls both in the United States and elsewhere for Washington to “step up” and lead an international effort to create a more stable Libya. Those individuals and organizations advocating such a course gloss over the unpleasant results of previous U.S. actions.

President Biden must resist such Siren calls. To his credit, Biden appeared to be one member of the Obama foreign policy team who strongly opposed the original intervention. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, confirms that point. Rhodes recalls that at a key meeting of the president and his foreign policy advisers, “Biden said that intervention was, essentially, madness — why should we get involved in another war in a Muslim-majority country?” His caution was thoroughly warranted. 

Now as president, Biden needs to avoid the temptation to approve further U.S. meddling—especially if it has any military component, such as Washington’s participation in an international peacekeeping mission. The United States and its allies have done enough to that poor country already. Even a diplomatic role must remain limited. Washington has repeatedly misread the internal dynamics in Muslim societies and adopted counterproductive policies. U.S. leaders need to stay in the background and let other governments take the lead in dealing with Libya’s internal struggles. The U.S. diplomatic role should focus on urging Russia, Turkey and other outside players to cease arms sales, the deployment of mercenaries, and other measures that are exacerbating the fighting in Libya. 

Creating a chaotic environment in which war crimes and massive human rights abuses could flourish did a monumental disservice to the Libyan people, and Washington bears most of the responsibility for that tragedy. Moreover, it matters little if U.S. intentions were good; the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Policies must be judged by their consequences, not their motives or goals. 

The new UN report amply documents the ugly, long-term consequences of the US.-NATO intervention in Libya. Muammar Qaddafi was a nasty, brutal ruler, but post-Qaddafi Libya is an even worse place than it was with him in charge. Biden administration officials need to learn the appropriate lessons, however sobering and humbling they might be.

Migrants returned to Libya are at risk of human trafficking and the recently reported slave trade, according to a UN report on war crimes and crimes against humanity due to the the ongoing civil war in that country. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
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