NATO’s Law of the Jungle in Libya

Exclusive: The murder of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi was widely hailed in the West as a just outcome. But it involved powerful nations making up the rules as they went along, the law of the jungle disguised as international justice, observes Peter Dyer.

By Peter Dyer

If there is one thing the “humanitarian” intervention in Libya has convincingly demonstrated it is this: the only real international law is the law of brute force.

The Libyan dust now appears to be settling. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has been summarily executed and the NATO intervention has officially ended. The dominant narrative is that the intervention was a timely, legal and morally justified action that fulfilled the primary purpose of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, passed on March 17: the protection of civilians in Libya’s civil war.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at United Nations

But there is an alternative narrative: three major powers invoked the United Nations Charter in order to violate it. The United States, the United Kingdom and France engineered a “humanitarian” intervention that was in reality an unprovoked act of war against a sovereign state.

The intervention resulted not only in illegal regime change — a violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter — but in the extrajudicial assassination of its head of state.

The primary stated purpose of UNSC Res. 1973 was indeed the protection of civilians through an immediate ceasefire but that was not how the resolution was implemented.

Paragraph 1 states: “[The Security Council] Demands the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians.”

Instead, NATO intervened on the side of the rebellion, violating Res. 1973. Instead of preventing civilian casualties by stopping the civil war, NATO extended the conflict by another seven months, ignoring the willingness of the Gaddafi government to accept a ceasefire and thus increasing civilian casualties.

In doing so, NATO degraded further what remains of the rule of international law, destroyed a secular Arab government and may have facilitated its eventual replacement by an Islamist state.

On April 10, three weeks after the NATO bombing began, Libya accepted a proposal by the African Union for an immediate ceasefire; the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid; protection of foreign nationals; a dialogue between the government and rebels on a political settlement, and the suspension of NATO air strikes. The next day the Libyan rebels rejected this offer.

The rebels and the three NATO powers leading the invasion France, UK and the U.S. were not focused on any of this. Despite their mandate to “protect civilians,” regime change was their actual goal.

The “Big Three” made their intentions clear in a joint statement three days after the rebels rebuffed the African Union by saying: “Gaddafi must go and go for good.”

On May 10 at the United Nations, the alternative narrative of Big Power abuse was touched upon as several states, including three Security Council members, belatedly warned against these developments.

Brazil’s Ambassador to the UN, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, said: “We must take the greatest care to ensure that our actions douse the flames of conflict instead of stoking them.”

Though South Africa had voted in favor of Res. 1973, Ambassador Baso Sangqu said: “United Nations peacekeeping operations should never be seen to be siding with one party to a conflict, as that would undermine the integrity of United Nations efforts.   (W)e are concerned that the implementation of these resolutions appears to go beyond their letter and spirit.

“International actors and external organizations should refrain from advancing political agendas that go beyond the protection of civilian mandates, including regime change.”

Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong was more blunt: “There must be no attempt at regime change or involvement in civil war by any party under the guise of protecting civilians.”

Nicaraguan Ambassador Mrs. Rubiales de Chamorro was passionate: “The Security Council must explain to us, particularly in the light of resolution 1973 (2011), how civilians are to be protected from shelling. We ought to be told, because we have the right to know, how many civilians have perished in the name of this alleged protection of civilians.

“We need to be told who is going to protect the civilians from their supposed protectors. Someone needs to explain to us how, in applying the protection of civilians, the assassination of a head of State of a sovereign country is planned. We must be told how the bombing death of innocent children contributes to the protection of civilians.”

Dr. Lawrence Emeka Modeme, a lecturer in International Law at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, made a strong case that the Security Council by itself had no authority to intervene in Libya.

In “The Libyan Humanitarian Intervention: Is it Lawful in International Law?” he pointed out that UN Charter Chapter VII authorizes the Security Council to approve military intervention in a country only as a response to a breach of, or threat to, international security. The Libyan conflict was internal there was no military threat to any other country.

Though a humanitarian intervention may have been called for, Dr. Modeme argued, the General Assembly rather than the Security Council was the legitimate organ to authorize it. Dr. Modeme cited UN Charter Articles 10 and 14 as well as UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which established the Human Rights Council.

He contended that “it should be the prerogative of the Human Rights Council to determine whether the threshold for humanitarian intervention has been reached and to recommend to the General Assembly whether collective humanitarian intervention should be undertaken. The General Assembly would then vote to authorize any necessary action.”

This, he argued, would entail removing the disproportionate power wielded by the five veto-bearing permanent members of the Security Council.

Majority decisions in the Human Rights Council and in the General Assembly would make “the process more transparent, more consensual, and less open to abuse. Security Council interventions, due largely to the influence of the veto-wielding members, is largely inconsistent, political and influenced by self-interest. This inconsistent and selective use of [UN Charter] Chapter VII powers has observably irked many states and has undermined the integrity of humanitarian interventions.”

In July 2003, after the United States had invaded and overthrown the government of Iraq, a country that was not presenting a threat to international peace, American international law expert Dr. Thomas M. Franck wrote: “The law based system is once again being dismantled. In its place we are offered a model that makes global security wholly dependent on the supreme power and discretion of the United States and frees the sole superpower from all restraints of international law and the encumbrances of institutionalized multilateral diplomacy.” [American Journal of International Law, July 2003, Vol. 97 p 608]

At the time this perspective, too, represented an alternative narrative to the dominant storyline at least in the United States.

Sadly, though, Dr Franck’s words proved prophetic. Less than eight years later, the U.S., acting through its proxy NATO, invaded another Arab country presenting no threat to international peace.

As U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said: “NATO’s top commanders may have acted under color of international law but they are not exempt from international law.

“If members of the Gaddafi Regime are to be held accountable, NATO’s top commanders must also be held accountable through the International Criminal Court for all civilian deaths resulting from bombing. Otherwise we will have witnessed the triumph of a new international gangsterism.”

Peter Dyer is a freelance journalist who moved with his wife from California to New Zealand in 2004. He can be reached at [email protected] .

14 comments for “NATO’s Law of the Jungle in Libya

  1. Peter Dyer
    November 17, 2011 at 18:08
  2. Justice
    November 17, 2011 at 00:28

    The sadest thing is that although we are living in the 21st century,the law ruling the world is still “The Law of Jungle”. Time seems going back millions of years. Where is the alliance of US, NATO,and UN leading the world to? How can young generations grow up in this world of blood,violance,killing,lies and destructions!!! The war criminals should all be punished!

  3. Ana Maria Alonso
    November 16, 2011 at 21:57

    Though this has not been reported in the English media, various Spanish-language media sources, including UNIVISION, just reported that Juan Mendez, the UN’s special representative on torture, has asserted that Gaddafi’s murder is clearly a war crime.
    Ana Alonso

  4. Ceaman
    November 15, 2011 at 01:24

    First he had OIL a FRIEND. Then he was a Madman no friend but an acquaintance. Then he was a terrorist sponsor NO FRIEND. Then a true FRIEND to the West. Then a madman again NO FRIEND. I wish the Americans would make up their minds, but American foreign policy has never been consistent. His death was very convenient as what he may have said about the West’s dirty linen went with him to his grave.No trial no problems. Watch out President Asad you may be on their FRIEND/NO FRIEND list

  5. Ana M. Alonso
    November 12, 2011 at 21:05

    What is even worse is that despite the UN’s putting an end to Nato’s “humanitarian mission” in Libya, these nations are still there and tacitly tolerating flagrant violations of the rule of law like habeas corpus, torture of prisoners, robbery by militias,wanton killing of blacks or suspected “loyalists”. We need to petition all entities and insist that the rule of law be respected internationally and that “humanitarian intervention” cease. Not only is this an injustice to the people of Libya but also to all the unemployed, homeless and hungry in the US since we have spent billions leading from behind and in “AID.” What happened to the huge sums of money in the Gaddafi accounts that were unfrozen?

  6. Aaron
    November 12, 2011 at 16:57

    Good article,

    And by the way, exactly how there had never been a UNSC resolution that explicitly called to overthrow the Taliban back in October 2001, but NATO intervened anyway based on its “code of conduct” that if one member is attacked, then other members have the obligation to defend it.

    Resolutions to legitimize war and occupation are quickly drawn after the fact.

  7. Hillary
    November 12, 2011 at 10:04

    Will the war of aggression and genocide conducted by the US , NATO against the Libyan people ever be exposed in the US Media ?

    The fact that Libya had NO external debt — No Central Bank — and like Iraq was looking to sell oil for Dinars and NOT US dollars.

    The US stepped in immediately after Obama received a letter from the small neocon group with great power over America’s Middle East Policies.

    The same neocon clique including Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and Paul Wolfowitz who banged the war drums so ferociously during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

    The same Wolfowitz who insisted that the well-informed testimony of General Eric Shinseki seriously over-estimated the number of US troops that would be needed to stabilize Iraq and how we would be welcomed with flowers.

    All of these neocons with strong connections to Israel instead of being discredited or in prison continue to control US Foreign Policy.

    Gafaffi shared the oil wealth with the Libyan people and raised the standard of living from one of the lowest to the higest in Africa with free education ,healthcare , housing etc etc.

    The neocon PNAC agenda for the US before 9/11 looked for a “Pearl Harbor” event to jump start a War of Civilizations against Islam.

    As G.W.Bust noted in his diary on 9/11 — it was a Pearl Harbor event.

  8. Big Em
    November 12, 2011 at 09:52

    I too agree that this was an excellent piece, a seldom-heard viewpoint that is founded in the concept of international law, not US exceptionalism.

    The US has definitely become what we so-often accuse our enemies of being – – – a power that openly assassinates individuals around the world & violently overthrows foreign governments we don’t like. I’m not naive enough to believe that this is a new policy (e.g.; read some of Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman, or Bill Blum’s books and you’ll quickly become disabused of that notion), but for most of the first 5 or 6 decades of the 20th century it was more subtly done (probably so that we could point to purported imperial competitors — the Soviet Union or China — and feign moral & political outrage at their crude machinations). Now it’s done openly and celebrated by the conservatives (of course) and even by many liberals in this country. Sad. As Chomsky and others have noted, if you reverse the roles, would WE like it if another country started bombing OUR population centers because they thought that Obama (or W or Clinton or whichever POTUS was in office — take your choice) was a horrible leader? Personally speaking, even though I thought W was a wretched president, I would have developed a hatred for any country that bombed my community and killed my family & neighbors just to try to dispose of W. I can’t imagine that it’s different with the residents of other countries. And the last I heard, the UN was NOT supposed to be about encouraging hatred amongst countries, but rather the exact opposite (difficult as that may be to achieve).

  9. rosemerry
    November 12, 2011 at 04:09

    International peace is the one thing that NATO and especially the USA could not bear to see. As soon as one “enemy” eg USSR is vanquished, it takes little time to find or invent another.

  10. thomas
    November 12, 2011 at 00:30

    let no one be fooled, this is the same old western imperial theft of land and resources and ameican hatred of success in nations of color, like cuba.
    i say this because even the cia in their nation assessment document said that Lybia had a standard of living equal to most of western europe!!

  11. Jon Anderholm
    November 11, 2011 at 22:31

    We have no accounting of casualties…. civilian and military..????
    and no accounting for damage to the civilian infrastructure in this bombing campaign…???
    we are left to wonder about the incredible damage that must have taken place with the massive amount of bombing that took place.. even what is claimed as surgical operations are not allowed to be seen????
    What are the true costs in lives and material damage of this intervention???

    • MA
      November 12, 2011 at 16:47

      I join you to ask these questions and I ask CNN, Sky, Aljazeera(Sky in the ME) Faux News and others who are the BLACK SPOTS on the sacred face of Journalism to answer these questions, who were showing the successes of advancing rag tag army of ‘rebels’ but never showed NATO bombing, and death and destruction caused as a result, to clear the way for theser ‘rebels’.

  12. equity
    November 11, 2011 at 20:47

    Excellent article. The media is complicit in supporting this flagrant abuse of law and power in Libya. We read about Gaddafi’s “mercenaries,” which seems mostly to have been foreigners to whom he had given asylum and who had become part of Libya’s military, just as so many resident foreigners are enlisted in the US military. After NATO’s overthrow of the legal government of Libya in a rebellion initiated by US intelligence, we learn in an aside in a Times article that Qatar had sent in “several hundred” troops to help the rebels. This, of course, was done at the behest of NATO. “International gangsterism” is most apprpos for what the US has done. Now, the Neoccons, who want to see all the Mideast countries not friendly to Israel neutralized, are setting their sites on Syria and Iran, and the media are helping them along in spinning the news.

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