War and humanitarianism: From Kosovo to Libya?

War and humanitarianism: From Kosovo to Libya?

The three western governments that have, with a little help from two Arab governments, been undertaking very lethal military action against Libya in the past eight days have worked to “justify” those acts of war largely in the name of either ending an existing humanitarian crisis or preventing one that was extremely imminent. In line with the too-common parlance in western countries, this war has thus been described as a “humanitarian intervention”– although war itself is anywhere and always an intrinsically anti-humanitarian undertaking.

In wars, the combatants may try to restrict their killing to members of the opposing army, but there is always a high risk of the “collateral” killing of noncombatants (as 9.5 years and counting of US-led war in Afghanistan depressingly continue to demonstrate.) In wars, too, when the armed forces of one side incapacitate roads, bridges, power lines, ports, airports, telephone systems or any of the other infrastructure of modern life– infrastructure that may or may not have military utility but that is always a necessary underpinning of normal, modern, civilian life– then civilians can very speedily be pushed into a complex humanitarian emergency in which hundreds or thousands of lives are lost.

In Kosovo/Serbia in early March of 1999, the NATO leaders “justified” their bombing of Belgrade and other locations inside Serbia as being necessary in order to halt ongoing ethnic cleansing, mass expulsions, and other linked atrocities that, NATO leaders alleged, the Serbian government forces were committing inside Kosovo at the time. However, that account of what was happening was always deeply flawed. Until a few days before the NATO bombing of Serbia began, there had been an OSCE monitoring teams inside Kosovo investigating and reporting on all allegations of atrocities; and they had been reporting that the situation had been easing somewhat over what it had been before… But as the Clinton administration and its allies decided they needed to ratchet up the tensions and prepare for a possible war, they managed to persuade OSCE to pull its monitoring teams out.

Then, once the NATO bombing of Serbia started (with Tomahawk missiles and various forms of navy-launched bombardment, much of it coming out of Italy… sound familiar?), one of the immediate responses of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and his supporters was to launch in earnest that exact same ethnic cleansing campaign inside Kosovo that the bombardment had allegedly been designed to forestall! Given the tensions that had long simmered between Serbs and Kosovars inside Kosovo, Milosevic’s reaction was entirely predictable. Hundreds of thousands of terrified Kosovars fled their homes and made the difficult trek to Albania. Photos of that ‘trail of tears’ were widely circulated in the west as a way of “justifying” the war.

Given what is happening in Libya today, it is definitely worth going back to study the history of the NATO war for Kosovo. As Wikipedia tells us, in mid-May 1999, around 6 weeks into that 10-week war, Clinton’s “Defense” Secretary William Cohen told CBS that,

    “We’ve now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing… they may have been murdered.”

The allegation there was that Milosevic’s forces had quite possibly killed those 100,000 Kosovar men. However, Cohen’s alarmism turned out to be a great exaggeration (if it was, indeed, based on any firm evidence at all.) Wikipedia tells us that

    In the 2008 joint study by the Humanitarian Law Center (an NGO from Serbia and Kosovo), The International Commission on Missing Person, and the Missing Person Commission of Serbia made a name-by-name list of 13,472 war and post-war victims in Kosovo killed in the period from January 1998 to December 2000.[72][73][74] The list contained the name, date of birth, military or civilian status of victim, type of injury/missing, time and place of death. There are 9,260 Albanians and 2,488 Serbs, as well as 1,254 victims that can not be identified by ethnic origin.[75]

First of all, note the long period of time covered by those figures. Then, remember that they are counting deaths of both combatants and noncombatants. 

Clearly, Cohen was exaggerating. (In the prosecutions that the ICTY launched after the war, members of the NATO-supported Kosovo Liberation Army were convicted, along with many Serbian leaders. In case anyone’s interested in all that… )

… So what was the situation in Libya in the run-up to NATO’s present war? From early February on there had been civilian street protests in several Libyan cities, some of which were met with force from the army. Then fairly early on, the rebels in Benghazi and I believe other eastern cities managed to bust into armories and pull out and distribute large amounts of weaponry for their own use; and they were also winning defections from numerous members of the government forces. Those armed rebels adopted a pre-revolutionary flag to fight under and started to advance toward Tripoli.

Not surprisingly, during those weeks of mounting civil unrest, many of the foreign migrant workers in the country became increasingly scared until they started to flee the hotspots. There were many reports that black Africans, in particular, were treated very badly by the rebels. But by about March 7 there certainly was a large-scale, existing humanitarian emergency: the flight of the migrant workers who tried to reach and succeeded in reaching the borders with Tunisia and Egypt. Once over the border, their situation remained very dire until those two host governments, with some help from local NGOs and a lot from international aid organizations and foreign governments, were able to provide tents, basic humanitarian supplies, and onward transport to their home countries.

That is what a humanitarian emergency looks like. I have seen no allegations at all that the Libyan government did anything to prevent or block the arrival of the humanitarian supplies that were needed to deal with that flood of refugees.

In addition, however, during the week of March 12, the Libyan government forces started to make rapid advances in the counter-attack they launched against the rebel forces that had been trying to reach Tripoli from the east, and managed to advance quite far toward the east. Libyan tanks and perhaps some planes launched ordnance against rebel-held cities. The rebel leaders and spokespeople expressed understandable concern that if the government forces were able to retake eastern cities like Benghazi or Tobruk, they would undertake mass atrocities against the residents of those cities.

In other words there was a (probably, but not necessarily, well-founded) fear of imminent mass atrocities against the residents of those cities. And it was based on those fears of future atrocities, much more than on any convincing evidence of significantly scaled past atrocities that Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and PM Cameron launched their war.

Indeed, if you go into the web archives of the International Committee for the Red Cross, which is the international (though Swiss-based) organization that is charged both with being the guardian of the whole body of the international laws of war and with taking a lead role in responding to humanitarian crises that arise in times of war, then you will find the following important report dated March 18:

    Geneva/Benghazi (ICRC) – Two days after its temporary relocation to the city of Tobruk in eastern Libya, a four-member team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) returned to Benghazi today to resume its humanitarian work.


“The improved security situation made it possible for us to return to Benghazi today,” said Simon Brooks, the ICRC’s head of mission in Libya. “We are eager to carry on supporting hospitals, visiting detainees in Benghazi and elsewhere and working with the Libyan Red Crescent to help civilians. At the same time, we continue to urge both parties to let us access other cities and areas, so we can assist other people affected by the fighting.”

The ICRC is moving more food and essential household items into Libya so that it can help tens of thousands of people if the need arises. The organization shipped 180 tonnes of relief goods to Benghazi last Tuesday and seven trucks carrying 145 tonnes of rice, sugar, oil, lentils and salt are on their way from Egypt to Tobruk.

The ICRC continues to help people at the Egyptian and Tunisian borders contact their families. Together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, it is supporting the work of the Egyptian and Tunisian Red Crescent Societies, which are providing them with essential services.
In other words, as of March 18, the ICRC’s people were reporting that the humanitarian situation inside Benghazi was getting a little better, not worse.

The following day, Obama and his allies launched their war.

Now, I will grant that Muammar Qadhdhafi and his sons had all made some very bellicose and anti-humane threats against the rebels and the residents of Benghazi in the preceding days. But crucially, it seems to me, there was a clear window, after the Security Council’s passage of resolution 1973 on March 17, when its two first crucial, “political” provisions– which called urgently for a ceasefire and internationally supervised negotiations aimed at defusing the conflict– could and should have been energetically pursued.

In them, the Security Council said that it,

    “1. Demands the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;


“2. Stresses the need to intensify efforts to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people and notes the decisions of the Secretary-General to send his Special Envoy to Libya and of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High-Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution.”
But Obama and his pals never gave negotiations a chance.

Now, it is extremely unclear what the political upshot of all this will be in Libya. In Kosovo, Washington ended up midwifing a tiny, landlocked little statelet that is a hub of organized crime at the heart of the Balkans, and whose people have a very stunted quality of life.

How will Libya look, 12 years hence? Will it be one state, or two, or three? Will its people still be locked in an unresolved and very damaging civil war or a situation of longterm political conflict? Will the Libyan people finally have the chance to have a well-run, transparent, and accountable government? I don’t think anyone in the Obama administration has any idea what Libya will look like– or, how it might get from its present situation of war-wracked division and NATO-inflicted infrastructural breakdown to anything that might be desirable.

And how on earth do they expect Libyans or anyone else to look at what NATO (and Qatar and the UAE) are doing in Libya today and to take away the lesson, which is so essential to the building of any decently functioning democracy, that when you have political differences with others– even sharp ones– the only acceptable way to solve them is through a commitment to nonviolence and to the nonviolent practices of deliberation, discussion, social solidarity, and voting?


This entry was posted in Background & Analysis, Human Rights, Imperialism, Imperialist Interference & Views, Libya, Military, Obama, US Foreign Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s