Stop Bombing Libya
By Marjorie Cohn
March 22, 2011
Since Saturday night, the United States, France, and Britain
have been bombing Libya with cruise missiles, B-2 stealth
bombers, F-16 and F-15 fighter jets, and Harrier attack jets.
There is no reliable estimate of the number of civilians
killed. The U.S. has taken the lead in the punishing bombing
campaign to carry out United Nations Security Council
The resolution authorizes UN Member States 'to take all
necessary measures . . . to protect civilians and civilian
populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab
Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign
occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan
territory.' The military action taken exceeds the bounds of
the 'all necessary measures' authorization.
'All necessary measures' should first have been peaceful
measures to settle the conflict. But peaceful means were not
exhausted before Obama began bombing Libya. A high level
international team - consisting of representatives from the
Arab League, the Organization of African Unity, and the UN
Secretary General - should have been dispatched to Tripoli to
attempt to negotiate a real cease-fire, and set up a
mechanism for elections and for protecting civilians.
There is no doubt that Muammar Qaddafi has been brutally
repressing Libyans in order to maintain his power. But the
purpose of the United Nations is to maintain international
peace and security. The burgeoning conflict in Libya is a
civil war, which arguably does not constitute a threat to
international peace and security.
The UN Charter commands that all Members settle their
international disputes by peaceful means, to maintain
international peace, security, and justice. Members must also
refrain from the threat or use of force against the
territorial integrity or political independence of any state
or in any manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United
Only when a State acts in self-defense, in response to an
armed attack by one country against another, can it
militarily attack another State under the UN Charter. The
need for self-defense must be overwhelming, leaving no choice
of means, and no moment for deliberation. Libya has not
attacked another country. The United States, France and
Britain are not acting in self-defense. Humanitarian concerns
do not constitute self-defense.
The UN Charter does not permit the use of military force for
humanitarian interventions. But the UN General Assembly
embraced a norm of 'Responsibility to Protect' in the Outcome
Document of the 2005 World Summit. Paragraph 138 of that
document says each individual State has the responsibility to
protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic
cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Paragraph 139 adds
that the international community, through the United Nations,
also has 'the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic,
humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with
Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect
populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and
crimes against humanity.'
Chapter VI of the Charter requires parties to a dispute
likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and
security to 'first of all, seek a solution by negotiation,
enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial
settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or
other peaceful means of their own choice.' Chapter VIII
governs 'regional arrangements,' such as NATO, the Arab
League, and the Organization of African Unity. The chapter
specifies that regional arrangements 'shall make every effort
to achieve pacific settlement of local disputes through such
regional arrangements . . .'
It is only when peaceful means have been tried and proved
inadequate that the Security Council can authorize action
under Chapter VII of the Charter. That action includes
boycotts, embargoes, severance of diplomatic relations, and
even blockades or operations by air, sea or land.
The 'responsibility to protect' norm grew out of frustration
with the failure to take action to prevent the genocide in
Rwanda, where a few hundred troops could have saved myriad
lives. But the norm was not implemented to stop Israel from
bombing Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, which resulted in a
loss of 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians. Nor is it being
used to stop the killing of civilians by the United States in
Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There is also hypocrisy inherent in the U.S. bombing of Libya
to enforce international law. The Obama administration has
thumbed its nose at its international obligations by refusing
to investigate officials of the Bush administration for war
crimes for its torture regime. Both the Convention Against
Torture and the Geneva Conventions compel Member States to
bring people to justice who violate their commands.
The United States is ostensibly bombing Libya for
humanitarian reasons. But Obama refuses to condemn the
repression and government killings of protestors in Bahrain
using U.S.-made tanks and weaponry because that is where the
U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed. And Yemen, a close U.S. ally,
kills and wounds protestors while Obama watches silently.
Regime change is not authorized by the resolution. Yet U.S.
bombers targeted the Qaddafi compound and Obama said at a
news conference in Santiago that it is 'U.S. policy that
Qaddafi needs to go.' The resolution specifically forbids a
'foreign occupation force.' But it is unlikely that the
United States, France and Britain will bomb Libya and leave.
Don't be surprised to hear there are Western forces on the
ground in Libya to 'train' or 'assist' the rebels there.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates pegged it when he said that a
'no-fly zone' over Libya would be an 'act of war.' Although
the Arab League reportedly favored a no-fly zone, Amr Moussa,
Secretary General of the Arab League, said that 'what is
happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly
zone.' He added, 'What we want is the protection of civilians
and not the shelling of more civilians.' He plans to call a
new meeting of the league to reconsider its support for a no-
The military action in Libya sets a dangerous precedent of
attacking countries where the leadership does not favor the
pro-U.S. or pro-European Union countries. What will prevent
the United States from stage-managing some protests,
magnifying them in the corporate media as mass actions, and
then bombing or attacking Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, or North
Korea? During the Bush administration, Washington leveled
baseless allegations to justify an illegal invasion of Iraq.
Moreover, Obama took military action without consulting
Congress, the only body with the Constitutional power to
declare war. It is not clear what our mission is there or
when it will end. Congress - and indeed, the American people
- should debate what we are doing in Libya. We must not
support a third expensive and illegal war. There is a crying
need for that money right here at home. And we should refuse
to be complicit in the killing of more civilians in a
conflict in which we don't belong.
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