By Thabo Mbeki
Analysing two recent key reports issued in the UK regarding the 2011 NATO assault on Libya, former president, Thabo Mbeki, argues that regime change in Libya was always the objective of western countries, and the protection of civilians was not as relevant as claimed. He continues by arguing for a stronger anti-imperialist role that African countries should play in confronting powerful western states.
Twice, in less than a decade, the UK has been involved in two wars of aggression which have caused grave disasters in countries of the South. The first of these was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, followed eight years later, in 2011, by the NATO aggression against Libya. The first took place under a Labour Party government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair. The second took place under a Conservative Party-led government, headed by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Recently, in a period of just over two months, the UK published two reports which discussed these two wars of aggression. The first, published on 6 July, is ‘The Report of the Iraq Inquiry’ (the Chilcot Report), released by a committee of inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot. The second, published 14 September, is ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options’ (HCFAC Report), prepared by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and chaired by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt.
These important reports tell a story that is radically different from the misleading propaganda which the UK governments had sought to implant in the public mind, both in the UK and globally, to justify actions which practically amounted to crimes against humanity. In both Iraq and Libya, the UK governments presented themselves as knights in shining armour whose military intervention would bring democracy and human rights to peoples who had suffered for decades under brutal dictatorships. Accordingly, they sought to achieve popular acclaim throughout the world as the liberators to whom all humanity owed a debt of immense gratitude.
However, they also needed additional arguments to justify their acts of aggression. In the case of Iraq, the UK government argued that the Iraqi government possessed weapons of mass destruction which posed a present and immediate security threat to the UK and the peoples of the world, and that these weapons had to be eliminated. The UK claimed it had firm intelligence that these were biological and chemical weapons and that Iraq would develop nuclear weapons, all of which weapons could also fall into the hands of terrorist groups.
In the case of Libya, the UK made strong assertions that the Libyan government, led by the late Muammar Gaddafi, was about to conduct a frightful massacre of large numbers of Libyan civilians to perpetuate itself in power. Supported by a resolution of the UN Security Council, it joined various NATO member states and some Arab Gulf states to conduct a sustained military campaign against the Libyan government on the pretext that it was carrying out a noble Responsibility to Protect (R2P) large numbers of innocent civilians.
In this article I will discuss the matter of the war against Libya and, among others, draw attention to the important findings of the HCFAC Report. But first we must reflect briefly on the findings in the Chilcot Report concerning the war of aggression against Iraq.
It is now common knowledge that the claim by the UK and US governments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was entirely false. In this regard, when John Chilcot presented his report he said: ‘The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were presented with a certainty that was not justified…The Joint Intelligence Committee should have made clear to Mr Blair that the assessed intelligence had not established “beyond doubt” either that Iraq had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons or that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued…
‘It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged, and they should have been.’
Chilcot continued: ‘The vision for Iraq and its people – issued by the US, the UK, Spain and Portugal, at the Azores Summit on 16 March 2003 – included a solemn obligation to help the Iraqi people build a new Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbours. It looked forward to a united Iraq in which its people should enjoy security, freedom, prosperity and equality with a government that would uphold human rights and the rule of law as cornerstones of democracy.’
However, Chilcot said, the practical outcome was that, ‘The invasion and subsequent instability in Iraq had, by July 2009, also resulted in the deaths of at least one hundred and fifty thousand Iraqis – and probably many more – most of them civilians. More than a million people were displaced. The people of Iraq have suffered greatly.’
The UK Government, thus, with its leading US partner, went to war against Iraq on the basis of a complete fabrication. Iraq neither had weapons of mass destruction nor did it pose any security threat to the UK or anybody else. The UK government had promised the people of Iraq peace, democracy, human rights and prosperity. Instead, its military intervention brought longlasting suffering to the Iraqi people, including continuing war, instability and further impoverishment.
The intervention affected the entire Middle East region negatively, and resulted in an increased threat to international peace and security, including through the emergence of the terrorist Islamic State group (IS), which has developed into a genuine global security threat.
With regard to these matters the Chilcot Report says: ‘The Iraq of 2009 certainly did not meet the UK’s objectives as described in January 2003: it fell far short of strategic success. Although the borders of Iraq were the same as they had been in 2003, deep sectarian divisions threatened both stability and unity. Those divisions were not created by the coalition, but they were exacerbated by its decisions on de‑Ba'athification and on demobilisation of the Iraqi Army, and were not addressed by an effective programme of reconciliation…
‘In 2008, Transparency International judged Iraq to be the third most corrupt country in the world, and in mid‑2009 the Assessments Staff judged that Government ministries were “riddled with” corruption…
‘By 2009, it had been demonstrated that some elements of the UK’s 2003 objectives for Iraq were misjudged. No evidence had been identified that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, with which it might threaten its neighbours and the international community more widely. But in the years between 2003 and 2009, events in Iraq had undermined regional stability, including by allowing al-Qa'ida space in which to operate and unsecured borders across which its members might move.’
When he introduced the report, Chilcot said: ‘We have sought to set out the Government’s actions on Iraq fully and impartially. The evidence is there for all to see. It is an account of an intervention which went badly wrong, with consequences to this day…The Government failed to achieve its stated objectives.’
Let us now look at the war of aggression against Libya. Mass demonstrations started in Tunisia in December 2010. These resulted in the overthrow in January 2011 of the government led by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The related mass uprising in Egypt started in January 2011, leading to the overthrow, a month later, of the government led by President Hosni Mubarak.
Similar demonstrations started in the city of Benghazi in Eastern Libya on 15 February 2011, and developed into an armed uprising. The Libyan government launched its counter-offensive against this armed uprising in March 2011 and quickly advanced towards Benghazi.
On 12 March 2011 the League of Arab States (LAS) called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya. The UNSC adopted Resolution 1973 five days later on 17 March, immediately imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ and calling on member states to ‘use all necessary measures’ to protect the civilians whom both the LAS and the UNSC claimed faced massacre by the armed forces of the Libyan government.
Western countries, led by France, the UK and the USA, started bombing Libya on 19 March, two days after the adoption of Resolution 1973. Ultimately, a National Transitional Council (NTC) emerged as the alternative authority to the government of Libya. The UN recognised this NTC as Libya’s governing authority on 16 September, 2011. By the end of August 2011, the combined and sustained military offensive by NATO, the Arab League and the Libyan militia had largely placed control of Tripoli and other cities in the hands of the NTC.
Finally, Gaddafi was captured and assassinated by his armed opponents on 20 October 2011. The NTC declared victory on 23 October and NATO officially ended its deceptively named ‘Operation Unified Protector’ on 31 October 2011, seven months after it had started its bombing campaign.
Much earlier, on 21 March, two days after the start of the NATO bombing, the UK House of Commons had overwhelmingly approved the involvement of the UK in the war against Libya with 557 votes in favour and thirteen against. When UK Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the House of Commons he said: ‘It’s quite clear the population of Benghazi was under heavy attack. Civilians were being killed in significant numbers (and) an exodus from the town had begun. There was an urgent need to stop the slaughter…A successful outcome is the enforcement of the will of the UN, which is a cease of attacks on civilians.’
Supporting the involvement of the UK in the war of aggression, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Milliband, said: ‘We have to make a judgement about our role in the world and our duty to others. Where there is just cause, where there is reasonable action that can be taken, where there is international consent – are we really saying we should be a country that stands by and does nothing?’
When Cameron made his statement about civilians who were allegedly being slaughtered, he was echoing what French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé had said when he introduced Resolution 1973 at the UNSC, that ‘the situation on the ground (with regard to civilians) is more alarming than ever, marked by the violent re-conquest of cities…We have very little time left – perhaps only a matter of hours.’
The chilling scare that was used to justify the adoption of Resolution 1973 was that the Government of Libya, led by Muammar Gaddafi, was about to massacre countless numbers of civilians especially in Benghazi, where the anti-government demonstrations had started.
Resolution 1973 itself said, ‘[T]he widespread and systematic attacks currently taking place in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity’, and it ‘authorised Member States…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi.’
One of the thirteen members of the UK House of Commons who voted against going to war against Libya was Jeremy Corbyn, now leader of the Labour Party. Explaining his position, he said: ‘I do not know the politics, the aims, the ambitions, or anything else of the people in Benghazi…I think we should be slightly cautious about going to war on behalf of a group of people who we do not know, understand or are aware of what their aims actually are. Many of them were ministers in the Gaddafi government only three weeks ago.’
Another was Caroline Lucas, member of parliament for the Greens. Showing great understanding of the situation, she said: ‘Given the West’s colonial past, its history of adventurism and support for dictatorship in the region, its failure to enforce UN resolutions in Palestine and the legacy of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I think its motives in Libya will always be in doubt.’
Libya was one of the important member states of the African Union (AU), one of the five, including Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa, which were levied a higher subscription than other member states to finance the budget of the Union. It was therefore inevitable that the AU would take steps to help resolve the conflict in Libya which started in February 2011.
On 23 February 2011, eight days after the start of demonstrations in Benghazi, the AU Peace and Security Council (AU PSC) adopted a decision calling for respect for the rights of the people of Libya to ‘democracy, political reform, justice and socio-economic development’, and condemned ‘the indiscriminate and excessive use of force and lethal weapons against peaceful protesters’. It also resolved to send ‘a mission of Council to Libya to assess the situation on the ground’. Unfortunately, this did not take place.
On 10 March, almost three weeks after its 23 February meeting, the AU PSC decided to constitute a five-nation ‘AU Ad Hoc High Level Committee on Libya’, made up of African heads of state and government, mandated to intervene to resolve the Libyan conflict. The committee was directed to ‘facilitate an inclusive dialogue among the Libyan parties on the appropriate reforms’, which would lead to the peaceful resolution of the Libyan crisis. The AU PSC also expressed its ‘rejection of any foreign military intervention, whatever its form’.
A mere week later the UN Security Council adopted its Resolution 1973, which prescribed exactly the ‘foreign military intervention’ which Africa had rejected. One of the immediate consequences of this was that the UN refused to allow the AU Ad Hoc Committee to visit Tripoli and Benghazi on 18 and 19 March 2011 to promote a peaceful resolution of the Libyan crisis, precisely to reduce the loss of human lives while promoting democratic rule in Libya. This meant that had the African peacemakers flown to Libya to carry out their mission, they stood the danger of their planes being shot down by NATO forces.
This was despite the fact that the UNSC was fully aware of the decisions which had been taken by the AU PSC on 10 March, a full seven days before the adoption of Resolution 1973. Indeed, Resolution 1973 itself said that it ‘took note’ of ‘the communiqué of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union of 10 March, 2011 which established an ad hoc High-Level Committee on Libya.’ This Resolution also took note of the 12 March decisions of the Arab League calling for a ‘no-fly zone’ and proceeded to refer to the Arab League as one of the inter-state institutions the UNSC expected to implement its Resolution. It made no similar reference to the African Union.
Indeed, the coalition of aggression against Libya made it a point constantly to mention the Arab League as some kind of mandating power for its actions and took great care never to mention the African Union as a player in terms of resolving the Libyan conflict. For instance, in a 15 April 2011 Joint Letter the principal sponsors of the aggression against Libya, French President Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Cameron and US President Obama, wrote: ‘We must never forget the reasons why the international community was obliged to act in the first place. As Libya descended into chaos with Colonel Gaddafi attacking his own people, the Arab League called for action. The Libyan opposition called for help. And the people of Libya looked to the world in their hour of need.’ They consciously excluded all mention of the African Union decisions taken specifically to help the people of Libya peacefully to resolve their differences.
In an article on 2 April 2011, entitled ‘Libya and African Self-Determination’, I said: ‘The marginalisation of Africa in terms of helping to determine the future of Libya paid absolutely no regard to the fact that failure to end the Libyan crisis correctly will have a long term impact on the Continent and especially the countries of North Africa and the Sahel, such as Sudan, Chad, Niger and Mali, with little effect on the Western
‘Nobody knows how many Libyans will be killed and injured as a result of the on-going civil war in that country and the evolving military intervention of the West, which has unquestionably evolved into support for the armed insurrection in Libya to achieve the objective of regime change.
‘The reality is that the Libyan conflict will claim many casualties. Because the space has been closed for the Libyans to sit together to decide their future, it is almost guaranteed that for many years Libya will experience sustained and debilitating instability, whoever emerges “victorious” from the current armed conflict.’
I also said in that article that the NATO aggression against Libya, marketed as an intervention to save civilian lives, had ‘unquestionably evolved into support for the armed insurrection in Libya to achieve the objective of regime change.’
By contrast, in his 21 March 2011 speech at the House of Commons, Cameron said: ‘In Iraq, we had been prepared to go into a country, to knock over its government and put something else in its place – that is not the approach we are taking here (with regard to Libya).’ Here Cameron made a solemn commitment to the people of the UK that the UK and NATO military intervention in Libya had nothing to do with regime change, as had been the case when the US, the UK and others invaded Iraq.
I quoted earlier from the joint letter which Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama published on 15 April 2011 in three newspapers – The Times of London, the International Herald Tribune and the French Le Figaro. This was only three weeks after Cameron had addressed the UK House of Commons.
In the joint letter the authors say: “Our duty and our mandate under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians, and we are doing that. It is not to remove Gaddafi by force. But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gaddafi in power…It is unthinkable that someone who has tried to massacre his own people can play a part in their future government…
‘And because he has lost the consent of his people any deal that leaves him in power would lead to further chaos and lawlessness… (After NATO and its coalition partners have succeeded to protect the civilians) then a genuine transition from dictatorship to an inclusive constitutional process can really begin, led by a new generation of leaders. For that transition to succeed, Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good.’
This is a glaring and unashamed example of double-speak.
In the letter, Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama wrote that they had not intervened in Libya ‘to remove Gaddafi by force’; yet in the same letter they said, ‘Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good’.
This manner of proceeding confirmed exactly the point made by British MP Caroline Lucas when she said, ‘Given the West’s colonial past, its history of adventurism…I think its motives in Libya will always be in doubt.’
The joint letter was published exactly three weeks after Cameron had told the House of Commons that, unlike in Iraq in 2003, NATO and its Arab League partners were not pursuing any objective in Libya ‘to knock over its government and put something else in its place’.
The UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (HCFAC) had to consider all the foregoing when it conducted its inquiry and prepared its Report on ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the United Kingdom’s future policy options’. Long before the HCFAC began its work on Libya in 2015, there were others who commented on some of the matters it considered.
For instance in a ‘Report on Libya’ published on 6 June 2011, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said: ‘Much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the (Libyan) regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no real security challenge. This version would appear to ignore evidence that the protest movement exhibited a violent aspect from very early on…
‘Likewise, there are grounds for questioning the more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators, let alone engaging in anything remotely warranting use of the term “genocide”.’
Similar observations had been made on 14 April 2011 by Professor Alan K Kuperman, writing in The Boston Globe. In an article headed ‘False pretense for war in Libya’, he said: ‘Evidence is now in that President Barack Obama grossly exaggerated the humanitarian threat to justify military action in Libya. The president claimed that intervention was necessary to prevent a ‘bloodbath’’ in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and last rebel stronghold.
‘Obama insisted that prospects were grim without intervention… Thus, the president concluded, “preventing genocide’’ justified US military action. But intervention did not prevent genocide, because no such bloodbath was in the offing. To the contrary, by emboldening rebellion, US interference has prolonged Libya’s civil war and the resultant suffering of innocents…’
The ICG Report also said: ‘The prospect for Libya, but also North Africa as a whole, is increasingly ominous, unless some way can be found to induce the two sides in the armed conflict to negotiate a compromise allowing for an orderly transition to a post-Qaddafi, post-Jamahiriya state that has legitimacy in the eyes of the Libyan people. A political breakthrough is by far the best way out of the costly situation created by the military impasse.
‘Instead of stubbornly maintaining the present policy and running the risk that its consequence will be dangerous chaos, (the international community) should act now to facilitate a negotiated end to the civil war and a new beginning for Libya’s political life…
‘To insist that, ultimately, [Qadhdhafi] can have no role in the post-Jamahiriya political order is one thing, and almost certainly reflects the opinion of a majority of Libyans as well as of the outside world. But to insist that he must go now, as the precondition for any negotiation, including that of a ceasefire, is to render a ceasefire all but impossible and so to maximise the prospect of continued armed conflict.
‘To insist that he both leave the country and face trial in the International Criminal Court is virtually to ensure that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting.’
In 2011 there were many throughout the world, including those who considered themselves genuine friends of the Libyan people, who did not believe the ‘dissident’ voices of those such as the ICG and Kuperman. These, like the coalition of aggression against Libya, had elected to ignore the earnest African demand to ‘(reject) any foreign military intervention (in Libya), whatever its form’.
The UK HCFAC made its own determination relating to many of the matters which had been raised by the African Union and others, including the ICG and Kuperman. It decided that the scary story of the impending massacre of unarmed civilians in Benghazi and elsewhere, told to justify the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO and Arab League aggression against Libya, had no foundation.
The HCFAC says: ‘Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence. The Gaddafi regime had retaken towns from the rebels without attacking civilians in early February 2011…
‘The disparity between male and female casualties (after the Government had restored its authority in Tripoli) suggested that Gaddafi regime forces targeted male combatants in a civil war and did not indiscriminately attack civilians. More widely, Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.
‘On 17 March 2011, Muammar Gaddafi announced to the rebels in Benghazi, “Throw away your weapons, exactly like your brothers in Ajdabiya and other places did. They laid down their arms and they are safe. We never pursued them at all.” Subsequent investigation revealed that when Gaddafi regime forces retook Ajdabiya in February 2011, they did not attack civilians. Muammar Gaddafi also attempted to appease protesters in Benghazi with an offer of development aid before finally deploying troops…
‘Alison Pargeter (an expert academic who assisted the HCFAC) concurred with Professor Joffé’s judgment on Muammar Gaddafi’s likely course of action in February 2011. She concluded that there was no “real evidence at that time that Gaddafi was preparing to launch a massacre against his own civilians”.’
The HCFAC went on to say: ‘An Amnesty International investigation in June 2011 could not corroborate allegations of mass human rights violations by Gaddafi regime troops. However, it uncovered evidence that rebels in Benghazi made false claims and manufactured evidence. The investigation concluded that much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge…
‘Subsequent analysis suggested that the immediate threat to civilians was being publicly overstated and that the reconquest of cities had not resulted in mass civilian casualties…In the course of his 40-year dictatorship Muammar Gaddafi had acquired many enemies in the Middle East and North Africa, who were similarly prepared to exaggerate the threat to civilians…
‘In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty. US intelligence officials reportedly described the intervention as “an intelligence-light decision”.’
In other words, in the view of US intelligence, the military intervention by NATO and its Arab League partners was based on very scanty intelligence.
Thus, the HCFAC determined that the propagation of the fabrication by Prime Minister Cameron and the UK Government that there was a dire and immediate threat to civilians, which justified the military intervention, was based on a number of negative factors.
One of these was that the UK had limited understanding of Libyan reality, with ‘the UK’s understanding of Libya before February 2011 (being) constrained by both resources and the lack of in-country networks for UK diplomats and others to draw on’. Another was that the UK government did not make a proper analysis of the Libyan rebellion. Yet another is that it did not verify the threat to civilians actually posed by the Libyan government.
The UK government happily accepted the false assertions made by Libyan emigrés and Arab Gulf countries about the massacre of civilians by the Gaddafi government, despite the self-serving nature of these assertions by people and governments which were hostile to that regime. It selectively used particular elements of what Gaddafi said, deliberately took these at face value, and used what was mere rhetoric to justify its invasion of Libya. It failed to identify the Islamist terrorist element involved in the armed uprising against the Libyan government. It willingly accepted the lead given by France, at all times ready to react to developments manipulated by France, without setting its own strategic goals.
The HCFAC says that, altogether, the strategy of the UK government was ‘founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the evidence’. It also exposes the bare lie that France led the offensive to intervene in Libya because of its serious, well-meaning and passionate concern to protect innocent civilians who stood the danger of being massacred by the Gaddafi government.
It says that ‘on 2 April 2011, Sidney Blumenthal, adviser and unofficial intelligence analyst to the then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reported [his] conversation with French intelligence officers to the Secretary of State’. Blumenthal reported that these officers said that President Sarkozy’s suggestions immediately to conduct a military campaign against Libya ‘were driven by the following issues:
- a desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production,
- increase French influence in North Africa,
- improve his internal political situation in France,
- provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world, [and]
- address the concern of his advisors over Qaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa.’
In this regard, the HCFAC says: ‘The sum of four of the five factors identified by Sidney Blumenthal equated to the French national interest. The fifth factor was President Sarkozy’s political self-interest.’
None of the French objectives explained by French intelligence officers, and known to Hillary Clinton, and therefore to President Obama and the US government, had anything to do with protecting Libyan civilians. They were focused on promoting French imperial interests in Africa, consistent with the historic neocolonial French policy of Francafrique. This explains why the USA went along with the French proposal, supported by the UK, to commit an act of aggression against Libya.
It is necessary to explain this conclusion. The HCFAC explains that the US government was reluctant to support the French and UK proposal to conduct a military operation against Libya. It says:
‘[Former UK Defence Secretary] Dr Fox told us that “the US were quite reticent about getting involved militarily and tying up assets in a Libyan campaign.” [Former UK Foreign Secretary] Lord Hague added that “there were divisions in the American Government” and that the UK and France influenced the United States to support Resolution 1973...Former US Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, pointed out:
“Cameron and Sarkozy were the undisputed leaders, in terms of doing something. The problem was that it wasn’t really clear what that something was going to be. Cameron was pushing for a no-fly zone, but in the US there was great scepticism. A no-fly zone wasn’t effective in Bosnia, it wasn’t effective in Iraq, and probably wasn’t going to be effective in Libya. When President Obama was confronted with the argument for a no-fly zone, he asked how this was going to be effective. Gaddafi was attacking people. A no-fly zone wasn’t going to stop him. Instead, to stop him we would need to bomb his forces attacking people.”
‘The United States was instrumental in extending the terms of Resolution 1973 beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone to include the authorisation of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. In practice, this led to the imposition of a “no-drive zone” and the assumed authority to attack the entire Libyan Government command and communications network.’
Sarkozy and Cameron sought US support because they knew they could not get the UN Security Council resolution they needed without this support. They also knew that they could not use NATO in the aggression against Libya without the agreement of the USA. In practice, despite the repeated claims that the USA accepted the leadership of France and the UK with regard to the aggression against Libya, the fact is that the USA led the NATO military offensive.
It is true that the US government was not particularly in favour of the military intervention against Libya. Among others this led to the open division on the matter between the US State and Defense Departments, led by Secretaries Clinton and Robert Gates respectively, with Clinton in favour of the intervention, which Gates opposed. In the end, Clinton won the battle. This was because the State Department understood the reality that France was determined to intervene in Libya to promote its imperial interests in Africa. This would not serve the strategic interests of the US with regard to increasing its own influence in Africa, necessarily against France in certain instances.
The US State Department, and Clinton, understood that the only way in which the USA could promote its own interests would be to join the inevitable aggression against Libya, thus asserting its own imperial leadership in practical ways and thereby subverting the French strategic objectives which Sidney Blumenthal had explained to Clinton. It was in this context that Clinton sought to take US ownership of the outcome of the aggression against Libya when, in a very distasteful display of celebration of the death of the despised, she said of the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi, ‘We came, we saw, he died!’, and burst out in a macabre instance of merriment.
Later, when events in Libya and the disastrous consequences of the 2011 NATO aggression could no longer be presented as a merry outcome, President Obama felt free to denounce the disastrous outcome, blaming it on the ‘Europeans’ to whom he had earlier cunningly given leadership, and described it in earthy language as ‘a shit show’. ‘In April 2016,’ the HCFAC said, ‘United States President Barack Obama described post-intervention Libya as a “shit show”. It is difficult to disagree with this pithy assessment.’
As part of the scaremongering to justify both the adoption of Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO and Arab League aggression against Libya, much was made of the use of murderous ‘African mercenaries’ by the Gaddafi regime.
The HCFAC notes: ‘Alison Pargeter told us that
“the issue of mercenaries was amplified. I was told by Libyans here, ‘The Africans are coming. They’re going to massacre us. Gaddafi’s sending Africans into the streets. They’re killing our families.’ I think that that was very much amplified. But I also think the Arab media played a very important role here. Al-Jazeera in particular, but also al-Arabiya, were reporting that Gaddafi was using air strikes against people in Benghazi and, I think, were really hamming everything up, and it turned out not to be true.”’
At the same time, the UK government ignored the real threatposed by Islamist jihadists, about which the HCFAC said:
‘Intelligence on the extent to which extremist militant Islamist elements were involved in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion was inadequate. Former [UK] Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Richards of Herstmonceux…[said] that “a quorum of respectable Libyans were assuring the Foreign Office” that militant Islamist militias would not benefit from the rebellion. He acknowledged that “with the benefit of hindsight, that was wishful thinking at best.”’
The report then notes: ‘The possibility that militant extremist groups would attempt to benefit from the rebellion should not have been the preserve of hindsight. Libyan connections with transnational militant extremist groups were known before 2011, because many Libyans had participated in the Iraq insurgency and in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda.’
The report continues: ‘We asked Dr Fox whether he was aware of any assessment of the extent to which the rebellion involved militant Islamist elements. He replied that he did not “recall reading anything of that nature.” It is now clear that militant Islamist militias played a critical role in the rebellion from February 2011 onwards.’
This was exactly the point which the British MP, Jeremy Corbyn, had made when he said ‘caution’ was necessary before rushing to support the insurrectionists in Benghazi whose ‘politics, aims, ambitions, or anything else’ were not known. The reality, therefore, is that the HCFAC suggests that so determined were the UK and its NATO and Arab League allies to defeat the Gaddafi government as their strategic enemy that they were ready to cooperate with what it calls ‘militant Islamist elements’, the IS group which has played a major role in the destabilisation of Libya and the African countries in the Sahel.
Correctly, the HCFAC draws attention to Resolution 1973 calling for action to secure the weapons which had been accumulated by the Libyan government over a number of decades. ‘Lord Richards told us that it was a policy objective to secure ex-Gaddafi regime weapons and ammunition in the aftermath of the civil war. However, he could not remember the UK “doing anything to achieve it”.’
HCFAC adds: ‘The United Nations Panel of Experts appointed to examine the impact of Resolution 1973 identified the presence of ex-Libyan weapons in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Gaza, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Syria. The panel concluded that “arms originating from Libya have significantly reinforced the military capacity of terrorist groups operating in Algeria, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia.” In the 2010-15 Parliament, our predecessor Committee noted that the failure to secure the Gaddafi regime’s arms caches had led to “a proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and some heavier artillery, across North and West Africa”. It identified that Libyan small arms had apparently ended up in the hands of Boko Haram militants [in Nigeria].’
Earlier, the report states:
‘The international community’s inability to secure weapons abandoned by the Gaddafi regime fuelled instability in Libya and enabled and (sic) increased terrorism across North and West Africa and the Middle East. The UK Government correctly identified the need to secure weapons immediately after the 2011 Libyan civil war, but it and its international partners took insufficient action to achieve that objective. However, it is probable that none of the states that intervened in Libya would have been prepared to commit the necessary military and political resources to secure stocks of weapons and ammunition. That consideration should have informed their calculation to intervene.’
Naturally, the HCFAC also addresses the important question of the impact of the NATO aggression on the quality of life of the Libyan people.
‘The United Nations ranked Libya as the world’s 94th most advanced country in its 2015 index of human development, a decline [of 41 positions] from 53rd place in 2010.
‘In 2016, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that out of a total Libyan population of 6.3 million, 3 million people have been impacted by the armed conflict and political instability, and that 2.4 million people require protection and some form of humanitarian assistance. In its World Report 2016, Human Rights Watch stated that “Forces engaged in the conflict continued with impunity to arbitrarily detain, torture, unlawfully kill, indiscriminately attack, abduct and disappear, and forcefully displace people from their homes. The domestic criminal justice system collapsed in most parts of the country, exacerbating the human rights crisis.”
‘People-trafficking gangs exploited the lack of effective government after 2011, making Libya a key transit route for illegal migration into Europe and the location of a migrant crisis. In addition to other extremist militant groups, ISIL emerged in Libya in 2014, seizing control of territory around Sirte and setting up terrorist training centres.’
The HCFAC has also addressed the vitally important matter of the peace which Libya required so that there would be no need for any concern about the safety of civilians. In this regard, bearing in mind that the strident argument used to justify UNSC Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO and Arab League aggression against Libya was the alleged immediate threat against the civilian population in Benghazi, the HCFAC says:
‘The combination of coalition airpower with the supply of arms, intelligence and personnel to the rebels guaranteed the military defeat of the Gaddafi regime. On 20 March 2011, for example, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces retreated some 40 miles from Benghazi following attacks by French aircraft. If the primary object of the coalition intervention was the urgent need to protect civilians in Benghazi, then this objective was achieved in less than 24 hours [given that the NATO bombing campaign had started on 19 March].
‘We questioned why NATO conducted air operations across Libya between April and October 2011 when it had secured the protection of civilians in Benghazi in March 2011. Lord Hague advanced the argument that “Gaddafi’s forces remained a clear danger to civilians. Having been beaten back, they were not then going to sit quietly and accept the situation.” Dr Fox stated that “the UN resolution said to take all possible measures to protect civilians, and that meant a constant degradation of command and control across the country. That meant not just in the east of the country, but in Tripoli.” Throughout their evidence, Lord Hague and Dr Fox stuck to the line that the military intervention in Libya was intended to protect civilians and was not designed to deliver regime change.’
Further, HCFAC states:
‘We asked Lord Richards whether the object of British policy in Libya was civilian protection or regime change. He told us that “one thing morphed almost ineluctably into the other” as the campaign developed its own momentum…
‘When the then Prime Minister David Cameron sought and received parliamentary approval for military intervention in Libya on 21 March 2011, he assured the House of Commons that the object of the intervention was not regime change. In April 2011, however, he signed a joint letter with United States President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy setting out their collective pursuit of “a future without Gaddafi”...
‘We asked Lord Richards whether he was convinced that military intervention in Libya was in the [UK] national interest in March 2011. He replied that “the Prime Minister felt it was in our national interest.” Former Chief of the [UK] Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Sawers, reportedly also doubted whether the intervention in Libya was in the British national interest. Lord Richards told us that he was unconvinced by the development of UK strategy in spring and summer 2011...
The report concludes that: ‘The deployment of coalition air assets shifted the military balance in the Libyan civil war in favour of the rebels…
‘The combat performance of rebel ground forces was enhanced by personnel and intelligence provided by states such as the UK, France, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. For example, Lord Richards told us that the UK “had a few people embedded” with the rebel forces.
‘Resolution 1973 called on United Nations member states to ensure the “strict implementation of the arms embargo”. However, we were told that the international community turned a blind eye to the supply of weapons to the rebels. Lord Richards highlighted “the degree to which the Emiratis and the Qataris…played a major role in the success of the ground operation.” For example, Qatar supplied French Milan anti-tank missiles to certain rebel groups. We were told that Qatar channelled its weapons to favoured militias rather than to the rebels as a whole…
‘The UK’s intervention in Libya was reactive and did not comprise action in pursuit of a strategic objective. This meant that a limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means…
‘Political options were available if the UK Government had adhered to the spirit of Resolution 1973, implemented its original campaign plan and influenced its coalition allies to pause military action when Benghazi was secured in March 2011. Political engagement might have delivered civilian protection, regime change and reform at lesser cost to the UK and to Libya. If political engagement had been unsuccessful, the UK and its coalition allies would not have lost anything. Instead, the UK Government focused exclusively on military intervention. In particular, we saw no evidence that it tried to exploit former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s contacts and influence with the Gaddafi regime…
‘We note former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decisive role when the (UK) National Security Council discussed intervention in Libya.’
Trying to restore a semblance of honourable strategic thinking on the part of the UK Government led by Cameron, the HCFAC inserted the following:
‘[Former Defence Secretary] Dr Fox helpfully explained his strategic criteria for UK participation in a military intervention:
“No. 1: what does a good outcome look like? No. 2: is such an outcome engineerable? No. 3: do we have to be part of the engineering? No. 4: how much of the aftermath would you like to own? I think that there is, and has been in our history, a tendency to answer No. 1 without answering the rest of the questions. It is not responsible for any Government at any time to go into any conflict and to deploy our armed forces without answering all four questions.”
‘The answer to question No. 1 was “civilian protection” in February 2011. In that case, the UK Government had plausible answers to questions Nos. 2 to 4. As Lord Richards explained, it had a coherent strategy based on protecting civilians and pausing to explore political options... However, it could not influence its coalition partners to agree and implement that strategy. Instead, it suddenly changed its answer to question No. 1 to “regime change” without addressing questions Nos. 2 to 4. This strategic incoherence formed the root of the international community’s failure to stabilise Libya.’
Perhaps, for understandable domestic political reasons, the HCFAC chose not to embarrass Dr Fox by pointing out that what Lord Richards understood as a ‘coherent strategy based on protecting civilians and pausing [military actions] to explore political options’ collapsed when Cameron appended his name to the infamous Joint Letter of 15 April 2011 which said that ‘Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good’.
Exactly because many of us in Africa and others in the world did not abandon the ‘political engagement’ which the HCFAC says was possible, but was not sought by the UK Government and its allies, during the course of the war in 2011 we supported an initiative to end the war through negotiations among the Libyans. The government of Libya, led by Muammar Gaddafi, the NTC and the traditional leaders had agreed that a senior retired European statesperson, well-known to all Libyans, and supported by former African heads of state and government, should convene them to negotiate an end to the war and agree on the future of Libya.
The European statesperson asked me to engage the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, to get UN approval for the suggested non-governmental intervention, as agreed by all Libyan players, so that these principal Libyan stakeholders could engage one another in negotiations to end the war and determine the future of their country. We needed this UN approval because by then the UN Secretary General had already appointed a Special Envoy, Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib, with the task to facilitate negotiations among Libyan stakeholders. However, these Libyan stakeholders preferred the non-governmental intervention I mentioned. For his part, the European statesperson, and ourselves as former African heads of state and government, wanted to assure the UN that as the non-governmental intervention we would do everything necessary to cooperate with the UN Special Envoy. Accordingly, I did indeed engage the UN Secretary General. Naturally, he had to discuss our proposal with various member states of the UN to authorise him to convey to us the UN approval. The UN approval we sought never came!
Thus did a genuine and very serious effort to put in place an inclusive Libyan process to end the war in Libya perish even before it was born, killed by those in the UN who were never interested to allow the Libyan people to determine their destiny.
It therefore did not surprise me that the HCFAC has posed the critically important question about ‘why NATO conducted air operations across Libya between April and October 2011 when it had secured the protection of civilians in Benghazi in March 2011’. The answer, of course, is that the argument that had been used to justify the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and therefore launch the NATO aggression, was nothing more than a deceitful manoeuvre used to hide the real intention of the sponsors of this resolution. The real goal was to effect regime change in Libya in the interests of the western powers which pushed for Resolution 1973, whose strategic goals had absolutely nothing to do either with protecting Libyan civilians or bringing democracy, human rights and prosperity to the Libyan people.
This is why then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could not hide her feeling of triumph when she openly celebrated the very repulsive and brutal assassination of Muammar Gaddafi by breaking out in hearty laughter saying, ‘We came, we saw, he died’.
What is the coherent story which emerges from these two important reports prepared by authorised UK institutions to assess the involvement of the UK in the two disastrous military adventures in Iraq from 2003, and Libya in 2011? These – “The Iraq Inquiry” conducted under the leadership of Sir John Chilcot, published on 6 July 2016, and the “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the United Kingdom’s future policy options”, prepared by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, MP, and published on 14 September 2016 – tell a story of a Labour government, led by Tony Blair, and a later Conservative government, led by David Cameron, which argued for and involved themselves in wars of choice in countries of the South, in Iraq and Libya.
Both these wars were launched and waged on the basis of absolute falsehoods which had no factual basis, confirming the correctness of the proposition that the western governments, and perhaps others as well, are ready as a matter of policy to rely on the propagation of lies to achieve their strategic objectives. Practical reality confirmed that the bulk of the mass media in these western countries stands ready to join these governments to communicate such lies. This reality also confirmed the global influence of this western media as much of the media in the rest of the world, including the countries of the South, parroted the false narrative communicated by their western counterparts.
Supported by the mass media, two UK governments went to war in Iraq and Libya despite the contrary opinion and opposition of the majority of the population they claimed to represent. In both instances, the UK and other western governments concerned launched wars of aggression against countries of the South to assert their hegemony in terms of determining the shape of the global order in all its elements.
In this regard, these western governments picked on governments of the South which they viewed as standing out in terms of setting a bad example as openly and consistently defiant rebels against such western hegemony. In this regard, they made certain that they exploited the wrong actions of these governments of the South to demonise them in their own countries and regions and globally, as the very representatives of everything that is evil and universally unacceptable. Accordingly, whatever the protestations of the western governments, the wars they would wage against the targeted countries of the South would pursue the central objective of regime change.
Experience has also shown that even in instances where it might not be necessary and possible to wage war, the western countries will use all other means to achieve such regime change. In the two instances at issue, the South African government, democratically elected as the representative of the masses of our people, also fortuitously serving, at the time, as a spokesperson of the peoples of the South, openly opposed the 2003 war against Iraq. Among other interventions intended to help avoid this war, it sent to Iraq a team specialised on the matter of eliminating weapons of mass destruction to assist the Iraqi government unit charged with the task to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors led by Hans Blix. Its task was to help ensure that the Iraqis worked honestly with the UN weapons inspectors to enable these inspectors properly to determine whether Iraq had these weapons of mass destruction.
After its visit to Iraq, this South African government team reported to the UN, through the UN Secretary General, that it was convinced that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Blix admitted publicly that the visit to Iraq by the South African team had, at least, helped to improve the cooperation of the Iraqis with the UN inspectors. However, many years later, in 2011, the South African government prevaricated with regard to the war against Libya.
During the session of the UN Security Council which adopted Resolution 1973, the South African representative at the UN, who was also a member of the UN Security Council in 2011, said, ‘South Africa supported the dispatch by the African Union of a special mission to Libya.’ However, he also said that by adopting Resolution 1973, for which he voted as instructed by his government, ‘the UN Security Council had acted responsibly to answer the call of the Libyan people.’ He ‘hoped that the letter and spirit of Resolution 1973 would be implemented in full.’
In the instance of Iraq, the western governments concerned made certain that the views of the South African government did not get any significant global public exposure. In the instance of Libya, these governments made certain that the views of the peoples of Africa, as represented by the African Union, also did not get any significant global public exposure. Rather, they used the wrong positions taken by the three African governments which served on the UN Security Council at the time – South Africa, Nigeria and Gabon – to delegitimise the view of the African Union, on the basis that these three had voted in favour of Resolution 1973, which, most unfortunately, they did.
The western governments therefore argued that these three African governments were as legitimate a representative of African opinion as was the African Union. This served as a flimsy justification to exclude the AU as a legitimate player in terms of the resolution of the conflict in Libya. Even when, as private citizens, we engaged the UN Secretary General to encourage an intervention, acting together with a former European statesperson, by then a prominent non-governmental leader, to help peacefully to resolve the conflict in Libya, the western governments ensured that this initiative died on the vine. All this confirmed that the imperialist impulse which had informed the political attitude of many western ruling groups to perpetuate their neocolonialist hegemony over Africa had not disappeared.
The Chilcot and HCFAC reports confirm that the UK political establishment, regardless of political party affiliation, continues to share the objective to ensure that the UK remains part of the conglomerate of the western global hegemon. The reports tell an instructive story of what the UK political establishment is ready and willing to do to make certain that it is not excluded as a member of this global hegemonic power, thus communicating an important message about the contemporary exercise of imperialist power. That message is that while the individual western powers have competing interests with regard to Africa, and will act to promote those interests in conflict with one another, they will also act in concert when they believe that any of our countries constitutes a threat to their shared objective of ensuring that all of Africa accepts their neocolonialist diktat.
The HCFAC Report about the 2011 invasion of Libya by the common western military formation, NATO, illustrates this reality in graphic terms. Thus did the individual imperial interests of the western countries with regard to Africa, as explained in some detail by the HCFAC concerning the French selfish national interests, get overtaken by the larger objective to eliminate a common threat posed by Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Despite its many wrong interventions in Africa, which many of us as Africans opposed in a sustained and principled struggle, Gaddafi’s Libya fought in its own way for the genuine independence of Africa, determined to use the relatively considerable resources it had accumulated as an important oil-producing country with a small population.
It was for this reason, interpreted by the Sarkozy government as a threat to French control of Francophone Africa, that major western countries came to the conclusion that Gaddafi’s Libya constituted a shared threat to the western countries as it was setting a bad example in terms of putting on the agenda the possibility for Africa truly to exercise its right to self-determination. This was what gave the possibility for these western countries to unite around the false proposition of a non-existent threat against Libyan civilians, thus to authorise the NATO aggression against the common enemy of the western powers, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan government.
All this makes the vitally important statement that as Africans we owe it to ourselves clearly to understand what it means for us to determine our destiny, consistent with our hard-won right to self-determination which, through our own struggles, has been inscribed in international law as an inalienable right of all nations, big and small. This firmly places on our agenda as Africans, and other peoples of the South, the task that we have an absolute obligation to be vigilant at all times to ensure that we rely on ourselves and the masses of our people to guarantee our right to self-determination.
The UN Security Council Resolution 1973 and the subsequent NATO war of aggression against an African country, Libya, expressly sought to make the regressive and anti-African statement that as Africans we are grossly mistaken in our belief that we enjoy an inalienable right to self-determination and have any possibility to exercise this right. This is the central reason why the UN Security Council deliberately ignored the decisions taken by the AU PSC on 10 March 2011, which established a High Level Ad-Hoc Committee to mediate a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Libya and spoke strongly against any foreign military intervention to end this conflict.
It was exactly for the same reason that, together with the UN Security Council, the western sponsors of Resolution 1973 – France, the UK and the US, and NATO – emphasised that their decision to attack the Libyan government had been authorised by the Arab League, an organisation from which Libya had extricated itself. It was to make the statement that the African opinion had no standing even with regard to the most important African issues.
As Africans we have to understand that this is part of the deliberate and systemic reality in the contemporary system of power relations, that in the current geopolitical setting the major western powers hold the view that Africa, given its enormous reservoir of natural resources and its potential as a power bloc, if and when it acts in unity, cannot be left alone to determine its destiny. This must be understood within the context of the virulent contradiction and competition between western powers and especially China with regard to both these natural resources and the global balance of power.
The African intelligentsia and the continent’s progressive movement have a shared and urgent obligation properly to analyse, understand and speak openly about the domestic and international challenges Africa faces as it pursues its struggle to achieve its progressive transformation, whose objectives include the achievement of both African unity and Africa’s renaissance. Thus will we, having accepted the positions of this intelligentsia and progressive movement, give real meaning to what Africa seeks to achieve in the context of the agreed AU Agenda 2063.
Central to this must be the understanding that nothing in this Agenda 2063 can be achieved and have any meaning unless it is based on a real exercise by ourselves as Africans of our right to self-determination. Thus must the broad African leadership, in all its echelons, understand that the struggle continues to defend this right and ensure both the equality of all nations in the ordering of international affairs and respect for the rule of international law.
It will only be through the conscious pursuit of these objectives by the organised political and other formations of the African people and the African masses themselves that it will be possible for us to make the assertion without which it is impossible to inspire these masses to engage in the necessary sustained struggle: that the struggle continues, and victory is certain!
* Published with permission of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation
** The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Afro-Middle East Centre