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Wednesday 17 May 2017

Libya and Syria, and the failure of the UN

Labour’s leader is drawing the wrong lessons on Libya and Syria, argues Clara Connolly

Jeremy Corbyn opened his recent Chatham House speech by recalling his youth, lived in the shadow of the Cold War. ‘I was haunted by images of civilians fleeing chemical weapons used by the United States,’ he said. I similarly recall these TV images of the Vietnam war—the great wake up call to our generation of rebellious youth.

He continued: ‘I didn’t imagine then that nearly fifty years later we would see chemical weapons still being used against innocent civilians. What an abject failure. How is it that history keeps repeating itself?’

But hold on—who’s been using the chemical weapons now? It’s not the United States, though you could easily assume that this is what he meant. No, history does not have the smooth arc over 50 years that he suggests, and the villains of 2013 or 2017 are not the same as those of the 1960s.

Jeremy Corbyn’s great theme is the interventionist wars of the West, especially of the US, with the UK trailing its coat tails: the era of ‘bomb first, talk later’ which he proposes to draw to a close with the advent of a Labour Government, ushering in a new era of international peace and cooperation under the auspices of the United Nations. It’s an attractive vista, to those with an imperfect grasp of recent history. I wish I could suspend my disbelief.

He says ‘the regime change wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria failed.’ I have no quarrel with him about Iraq, but I wonder what Libya and Syria are doing in that list?


Of the Libyan intervention he paraphrases the summary of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK's future policy options ( Sept 2016) thus: ‘They concluded the intervention led to political and economic collapse, humanitarian and migrant crises and fuelled the rise of ISIS in Africa and across the Middle East.’ He asks: ‘Is that really the way to deliver security of the British people?’

Now I would expect a Tory led investigation to fuel fears of migrant flows from Libya. But is this the argument we’d expect from a radical internationalist Labour Government, concerned with ‘integrity and human rights’? Does he really accept that Libya’s instability is the cause? The migrant flow is through Libya, not from it. The problem for Europe is that Ghaddafi’s regime is no longer there to stem it.

The Select Committee report, as far as I could see, did not take evidence from a single Libyan. It did not have—even in an appendix—a single reference to casualties caused by the intervention; surely a significant issue for Libyans.

Libya: Casualties

Human Rights Watch produced a critical report in 2012 of the NATO intervention between March and October 2011, referring to undisclosed casualties of NATO bombing, and asking for further investigation.

It could find only 72, a figure which has not since been challenged.

And let’s look at the 2016 statistics of violent deaths (including fighting forces) in Libya: 1,523 people killed.

That is a high body count for any country of 6 million. But comparing it to a Syrian civilian casualty list for the same year of 16,916 (with 10,000+ forced disappearances in addition) puts it into perspective.

Such data are usually overlooked when comparing the effects on civilians of intervention against Ghaddafi in Libya with non-intervention against Assad in Syria.

Libya: Origins of intervention

This is what the Libya report says about the origins of the NATO intervention:
The Security Council passed UNSCR 1973 on 17 March 2011, authorizing member states to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect civilians. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a briefing to the Council on 24 March ‘the international community has acted together to avert a potential large-scale crisis.’

In support of UNSCR 1973, on 24 March NATO agreed to enforce the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya. By the end of March 2011, NATO Operation Unified Protector had three distinct components: enforcing a no-fly zone; enforcing an arms embargo in the Mediterranean Sea; and conducting air and naval strikes against military forces involved in attacks or threatening to attack Libyan civilians and civilian populated areas.

So this was clearly an action supported by the UN, and unanimously approved by the UN Security Council.

Libya: After the fall of the regime

As for what was to happen  in Libya after the Ghaddafi regime fell, in October 2011, that also was a task allocated to the UN.
 On 16 September 2011, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted UNSCR 2009 (2011), authorising the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to assist national efforts to restore public security, promote the rule of law, foster inclusive political dialogue and national reconciliation, and embark on constitution-making and electoral processes. On 19 September, the UN Secretary-General appointed Ian Martin as his Special Representative (SRSG) and Head of UNSMIL.
That UNSMIL was not up to the task it was mandated, is suggested by the conclusions of the Select Committee:
The Libyan people’s desire to own their own future after 40 years of rule by Muammar Gaddafi was understandable. However, the lack of institutional capacity and political experience in post-Gaddafi Libya meant that the international community needed to exercise leadership rather than reacting to events. We were told that the United Nations was especially ineffective in leading and supporting the provision of policing and internal security. Ian Martin, United Nations Special Representative to Libya from September 2011 to October 2012, acknowledged that the international community’s ‘greatest failure was the lack of progress in the security sector.’ The lack of internal security undermined other economic and political reconstruction initiatives implemented by the United Nations and its partner organisations.

With the benefit of hindsight, Lord Hague concluded that ‘a coalition of the willing working on Libyan stabilisation and reconstruction might have been more effective than a UN-led process.’ The FCO should lead the international community to review whether the United Nations is the appropriate body to co-ordinate stabilisation and reconstruction in a post-conflict environment and whether it has the appropriate resources, and if not to identify alternatives that could be more effective. Such a review is a practical and urgent requirement, because the United Nations might be asked to co-ordinate a similar mission in Syria, Yemen or Iraq in the near future.

If Jeremy Corbyn actually read this report, instead of simply using its summary as fodder for damning a unilateral intervention (which Libya was not) he would have found that the report casts doubt on the effectiveness of the UN in which he places such faith and upon which his policy relies.

This is a problem for us all, who want to understand how the world community can  cooperate—even where there is unanimity in  the UN Security Council—to resolve a serious conflict, when a state is at war with its own people.

I will conclude the section on Libya, which I hope raises questions for Jeremy Corbyn, with the observations to the Committee of Chris Stephen, a Guardian journalist who spent much time in Libya. He concludes that events after the fall of the regime were up to Libyans themselves. If we give agency to Libyans, who pleaded for UN  intervention against Ghaddafi, we have to give responsibility also to Libyans  for what happened afterwards.

Chris Stephen:
I don’t think we did drop the ball on Libya; I think it was up to them. At the time of the revolution they had $158 billion in foreign assets. Money has never been the problem. Now it is about $109 billion. People often say that we dropped the ball but, when you ask them for specifics, it gets a bit vague. For those of us who were there, it was a very factionalised leadership. The British and the European Union were offering all sorts of things—all sorts of aid—but there is not a common civic thing.
I did a day training with the coastguard there once. They got absolutely no support. The EU was there training them but the coastguard were a national organisation, so they did not have a particular militia or a particular faction, and they could not get life jackets. A few days before we turned up, their captain went to see the deputy Minister and said, ‘The journalists and the TV are turning up. If there are no life jackets, they are going to film it.’ That is how they got the life jackets. I was given one; I unwrapped it out of the cellophane. I said to this young  sailor, ‘Thank you very much.’ He said, ‘No, thank you very much because without you guys we would not have these things.’
That was the reality. Everything that was not done through a faction was not done. There are lots of examples. I do not think we dropped the ball. They had their freedom and their democracy. In a sense it is their responsibility. But where we have gone terribly wrong is this unity Government is not based on democracy.
However sad this story, it is certainly not the story of Iraq. If anything, it is a response to what was learned from Iraq about the disastrous effects of dismantling the old regime. What the Libyans demanded was intervention to protect their citizens from the regime, with no strings attached. That effectively is what the UN gave them.  The outcome (which still remains unresolved for Libya) raises further and more searching  questions for the world community which Jeremy, in promoting the UN and international cooperation, should also be asking.

The UN and Syria

If Libya illustrates the weakness of the UN in the post-conflict peace building stage, Syria exposes the UN’s utter  moral bankruptcy in face of a tyrant insistent on slaughtering his people into submission. When millions of Syrians rose in 2011, first to demand reforms, and then ‘regime change,’ nobody could have imagined the lengths to which Assad would go—in mass detention, torture, slaughter, destruction of the country—to save his leadership. ‘Assad or we burn the country,’ the slogan of his militias scrawled on Syrian walls, eventually assumed a terrible  truth.

The UN has utterly failed to stand up to Assad or to wring any cessation of violence. It has failed to deliver aid even when authorised to do so by the Security Council. Enforcement of UN resolutions has been stymied time after time by the vetoes of Russia and China. It has presided over an endless series of peace talks that have achieved precisely nothing to date, except to distract from the continuing violence and destruction.

Yes I completely accept the good sense of resisting Blair’s rush to war in Iraq in 2003, on the coat tails of Bush. But Jeremy Corbyn is tragically misreading Libya and Syria as wars of US or Western aggression. In doing so, he is refusing agency to Libyans and Syrians who rose in their millions in 2011 to demand freedom from tyranny. And he refuses to see the limitations of the UN, well overdue for root and branch reform.