Monday, 21 March 2011

Libya, intervention and humanism

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Is intervention against Muammar Gaddafi
morally justifiable?
While I wouldn't expect anyone to reach for my blog posts for expert opinion on events in North Africa (many thousands of words have been expended in recent days by people with far greater knowledge and expertise), it seems strange to go on covering other subjects here while ignoring the issue. Like many of you, I'm sure, I've followed the weekend's events in Libya with a great sense of discomfort, so I'd like to offer some of my thoughts and encourage you to share yours in the comments – I think there's a humanist angle from which to view the notion of international intervention in crises such as Libya, so I'll try and outline that as a perspective we can debate on this blog.

The crisis that has been unfolding in Libya asks a profound question of globalisation, namely: is globalisation merely an amoral growth in global interconnectedness for the purposes of trade and commerce, or does it come with an added moral responsibility for all of us who operate in a globalised world? As the global economic community grows, does a social community grow with it? Does our circle of empathy, the imagined community with which we feel affinity, extend beyond our own locale or nation to include all "global citizens"? If we engage in trade and commerce with the people of Libya, do we also have a moral responsibility to stand alongside them when they are subjected to brutal oppression by their government? Why should globalisation entail one but not the other?

Humanism, as a philosophy that involves a view that there are certain universal values that can, and should, be shared by people of all cultures, seems to me to be particularly well-suited to a globalised world. In this sense, the United Nations can be seen as an expression of humanism, as the very concept of an international organisation like the UN involves a recognition that different cultures can have underlying values that they share, even if they often diverge in many other respects, not least in terms of prevailing religious beliefs. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948, in which those governments voting in favour acknowledged that all humans have the right to freedom of speech and belief, and the right to be free from fear and want, represents perhaps the most succinct expression of this great humanist principle.

From this perspective, intervention in Libya can be viewed as a humanist endeavour. Through Resolution 1973, the United Nations Security Council has voted to take action in order to ensure the protection of Libyan civilians from the brutal actions of Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. Unlike Iraq, this does not involve a handful of governments taking action without the consent of the UN – while certain key players such as Russia and China abstained from voting for the resolution, action to protect the Libyan people is being taken with the consent of the security council and with the support (at least initially) of Libya's neighbours in the form of the Arab League and, it would appear, a great number of Libya's people. If globalisation is to be more than a system of commerce, is Resolution 1973 not an expression of its human face?

Yet, despite all of the above, I can't help feeling deeply uncomfortable with what has been occurring in the wake of Thursday's UN vote. Nationalism, at least in my view, is not a position that sits comfortably with a humanist philosophy, in so far as it generally tends to involve a sense of national and cultural superiority that is incompatible with a belief in universal values, but national sovereignty is a geopolitical reality. The United Nations is a means for achieving international cooperation in a globalised world, but it is underpinned by a recognition of the sovereignty of individual member states. What business, then, do other states have intervening in the internal politics of Libya? And while the principle of humanitarian intervention may be an expression of universal values, those values are by no means universally accepted, and it could be argued that to enforce them militarily is a form of cultural, even humanistic, imperialism.

These are all complex questions, and I am in no way suggesting I have the answers. I just want to put the questions out there and see what others think, really. Surely one of the big mistakes with Iraq and Afghanistan was an unwillingness among those in power to stop and properly consider questions like these. Before I throw this open to comments, I'll end by summarising my current thoughts on events in Libya. While remaining deeply conflicted, I came to find myself in favour of international intervention in the form of a no-fly zone, particularly as Gaddafi moved closer to brutally crushing the uprising last week. It seemed clear that he was slaughtering civilians (and would only continue to do so in the wake of reclaiming the east of the country), and, with broad international support for intervention, including from the Arab League, declining to take action when the circumstances seemed to allow it would, I thought, have been an abrogation of responsibility.

But now that action has begun, I feel increasingly uncomfortable. Like many people, I think, I assumed, perhaps naively, that a no-fly zone involved a somewhat passive form of intervention – remove Gaddafi's ability to deploy air power through the threat of force, rather than by actually attacking him. But the action Britain, alongside the US, France and others, has been taking clearly goes beyond this, and seems to have become a military campaign to topple Gaddafi. Presumably that would amount to protecting civilians, given that Gaddafi himself is ordering the attacks on them, but it seems to go beyond what was authorised at the UN. Moreover, we know from past experiences in Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq that bombing on this scale, despite assurances of "accuracy", tends to involve civilian deaths – in a mission that, by definition, is designed to prevent civilian death, that is an uncomfortable fact to deal with.

Ultimately, and again I think I'm of the same view as many here, I just can't avoid feeling that this represents a complete failure to learn the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm aware of the argument that we can't let past failures prevent us from doing the right thing, but have we (Britain? "The West"? "The international community"? - events like these raise many questions about our own identities) properly considered what we are getting into here? What happens once Gaddafi is toppled? Libya is a country with serious tribal divisions, and the uprising has not just been a simple case of the majority of the population campaigning for the overthrow of a tyrant. To call it an uprising at this stage seems insufficient – Libya is in a state of civil war, and intervening on one side of a civil war is a tricky and dangerous business. What if civil war continues after Gaddafi has gone? How sure are we that the rebels we have thrown our support behind are absolutely in the right? The UN resolution was about protecting civilians, not overthrowing Gaddafi, so if civilians are still dying after he has gone, the international coalition will still have a responsibility to protect civilians. Whose side do they intervene on then? What if the rebels begin reprisals against Gaddafi supporters?

I would suppose that there is only so much that can be done from sea and air before troops need to be sent in (something that has not been authorised), and if that happens then the intervention will have become a cause for grave concern. At present, I can accept intervention as a necessary step (you could say a necessary evil), but there are far too many unknowns to be able to support it entirely. If intervention can be over and done with this week, I think it might go down as the correct course of action, but if it drags on, particularly at the present level of intensity, it will only serve to feed the narrative of Western imperialism towards Muslim countries. These are very worrying times, and when I walk past a newsagent and see triumphant headlines about "Our Boys" hitting out at "Mad Dog" Gaddafi, under photos of huge explosions, I feel deep discomfort, not to mention an unwanted sense of déjà vu.

So, those are just my thoughts – please do share yours.
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