Libya is a disaster – but it’s too easy to just blame ‘the West’

The oil depot fire raging near Tripoli airport. EPA

Libya’s already edgy security situation is suddenly in a steep decline. France has announced it is evacuating its nationals from the country by sea, and other countries are doing the same with their embassy staff. Meanwhile, as militants struggled for control of Tripoli airport, an oil depot caught fire, forcing Libya to ask for international help with the gigantic blaze.

All this has of course prompted much hand-wringing about international responsibility, with the UK, France and the US – who intervened in Libya in 2011 – taking most of the flak.

As far back as March, The Guardian published a comment piece by Owen Jones, that took precisely this line: Libya is a disaster we helped create, and the West must take responsibility. Jones drew attention to the spiral of chaos that has plagued post-intervention Libya since 2011, and concluded that the country’s worsening strife has “shamed western interventions”.

On its face, that simplistic argument is appealing - “the West” (ignoring the fact that Germany opposed the intervention) intervened and is therefore entirely responsible for what has happened since.

Before we give in to this seductive argument, we must stop and think.

The complexity of “rebuild”

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) put forward its Responsibility to Protect report, which set out three core responsibilities for the international community: to prevent war crimes and genocide, to react to them, and to rebuild after any humanitarian intervention.

The ICISS’s commissioners did not see these three responsibilities as separate from one another; their report spoke instead of a prevention-reaction-rebuild continuum. In other words, any intervening force has a responsibility to rebuild the state in question, because if they do not, then the state may find itself “still wrestling with the underlying problems that produced the original intervention action”.

Help’s on the way…right? EPA

In other words, states should not simply wipe their hands of all post-intervention responsibilities and walk away, braying phrases like “mission accomplished”. But of course, this is precisely what many have accused “the West” of doing in Libya (and for the record, what others have claimed it has done in Mali).

But here’s the kicker: the 2001 report was just that, a report. In 2005, when UN Member States actually endorsed the Responsibility to Protect agreement, neither paragraph 138, 139, or 140 mentioned the concept of “rebuilding”.

The exact reason why it was left out remains unclear. The important point here is that on one hand, UN Member States agreed to help prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, to assist states so that they could fulfil this responsibility, and, to be prepared to respond in a “timely and decisive manner” through the UN Security Council on a “case-by-case basis” if the state in question is “manifestly failing” to protect its population from grave crimes.

On the other hand, they did not agree to rebuild a state following an intervention. So when writers like Jones claims that the West “failed in its responsibilities”, one might ask what doctrine they’re referring to.

Morally speaking, states should of course not simply think they can intervene wherever and however they like, then wash their hands and walk away. But even this is a more complicated matter than many anti-interventionists seem to think.

UN member states have never agreed that this principle holds in law – and in any case, the idea that “the West” should exclusively carry the burden of rebuilding a state (even one in which it intervened) is highly contested and sensitive.

Sole responsibility?

The idea of “the pottery rule” that Jones invoked – “you broke it, you fix it” – is equally highly contested. James Pattison refers to this as the “Belligerents Rebuild Thesis”, which places the responsibility to rebuild solely at the door of the interveners.

For Pattison, there are two obvious problems with that. To him, it is unfair for a belligerent to be tasked with rebuilding when it has fought a just war. This is particularly relevant with regards to Libya: many people supported the removal of Gaddafi, and the goal of replacing his regime with a democratic one was roundly (if not unanimously) held up as deserving of intervention.

It seems that writers like Owen Jones judge the intervention itself to be a just war in terms of jus ad bellum (just cause) – and instead have a problem solely with the post-intervention phase of the intervention, and the responsibility to rebuild.

But it is unfair to place both the burden of intervention and the burden of rebuild on the same actors. To put this another way, we do not expect fire-fighters to save people from a burning house, drive them in an ambulance to the hospital and then nurse them better. In society, the responsibility of aftercare is shared; so it should be at the international level.

In addition, if intervening states are held entirely responsible for rebuilding, then of course they will probably refrain from intervening in the first place – making the practice of humanitarian intervention less sustainable in the future.

Pattison’s other problem is that “the warring parties may not be the most suitable agents to rebuild”. Again, this argument is perfectly applicable when one considers Western interventions in African states. Surely, a strong case can be made that regional actors, neighbouring states, and in particular local knowledge are all needed. The West of course lacks this when it comes to African states, as the hotly-debated buzzphrase, “African solutions for African problems”.

As Pattison concludes, all UN Member States are responsible for helping to rebuild post-intervention states, especially after conflicts the UN itself authorised. Indeed, this is arguably the whole point of an international community.

None the wiser

Another old cliché tends to come up in these discussions: “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it”.

A case can be (and often is) made that because the US, the UK, and France ignored the wishes of the African Union in the lead up to the Libyan intervention and then overstepped their mandate, they should not now be entitled to turn around to bodies like the UN and demand other countries’ help with a situation they created.

This view backs up the sole responsibility argument, but fails in the face of what is actually happening in Libya now. If the international community simply stands back and blames France, the US and the UK, that will do nothing for the people of Libya. They will be victims not only of mass violence, but also of international stubbornness.

Libya’s story is an ongoing litany of tragedy, but to understand how that story started and might one day end, we have to do more than simply gloss over the complexities of actions, duties, rights, and responsibilities by playing the same old blame game.

The deterioration in Libya’s situation has shown us how badly international law and structures deal with the question of who is responsible for countries after intervention – and what this responsibility entails.