Libya: Just War or Just Unfair?

The concept of Just War is one as old as warfare itself. In today’s world, under the watchful eyes of the myriad institutions dedicated to humanitarianism, this code of ethics is more important than it has ever been, and politicians today work hard to put forth an image of battle in the name of justice. Throughout this year, President Obama, head of the most powerful country in the world, has always referred most carefully to the situation in Libya, calling it an ‘intervention’, never a war.

Just War theory itself is made up of three separate branches- justice in the waging of war, justice during war and justice after a war. The first, Jus ad bellum, states that nations may only use military force with the right authority and with a noble reason to do so, either as a response to an imminent threat or to intervene in an attempt to protect innocent civilians.  ‘War’ must only ever be a last resort. Jus in bello; that is, justice during times of war, states that the fighting must be fought in a proportional manner to both the size of the threat and to the capabilities of the opposing state. It also demands that during any war, attacking nations have a big responsibility to protect civilians at any costs. This controversial assumption is based upon the fact that soldiers have made a choice to be in the midst of a warzone, and that therefore measures to protect civilian lives must be taken even if that means putting a soldier’s life at risk.

On the 15th of February, 2011, riots were triggered in Benghazi, Libya by the arrest of human rights lawyer and activist Fathi Terbil, a reflection of the troubles permeating the social conscience of neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. Since then, the world has watched as organisations such as the UN, EU and NATO used sanctions and the threat of being judged by the ICC in an attempt to convince Col. Gaddafi to release his 42 year hold of the nation. At the same time, more and more nations recognised the Libyan rebels as the legitimate representatives for their country. It would seem, therefore, that the beginning of this intervention does adhere to the laws of a Just War, leaving bloodshed as a last resort after repeated attempts to negotiate with Gaddafi.

Today, almost 8 months since the fighting started and almost 7 since the air strikes began, Libya is in a state of disarray. Civilians started to flee not long after the conflict arose, and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) estimates that the civil war has displaced 218,000 Libyans and killed around 10,000-15,000 people. Numerous atrocities are regualr news features across the world. Around 213 people were reported as having drowned at sea while attempting to reach Italy. On the 20th of June a compound in which one of the houses belonged to one of Gaddafi’s associates, Khweildy al-Hamedi, was bombed, resulting in the death of several civilians. Gaddafi’s birth place, Sirte, is now without water, food, medical supplies or operating hospitals. Although UN trucks were sent with supplies, they were unable to reach their destination due to the fighting. NATO Airstrikes on hundreds of towns and villages have left civilians heartbroken. Although urged by humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International and civilians in Libya alike to thoroughly investigate reports of civilian deaths, NATO spokesperson Robert Lavoie reported that there are no plans to further investigate reports due to there not being any troops on ground and therefore no reliable way to check claims.

This lack of diligence will of course hinder the Western allies’ ability to see through the requirements of the third part of Just War theory: Jus post bellum. This final part explains that attacking nations must, once the war is finished, compensate civilians and help to rebuild the defeated country. Although countries such as France and the UK have vowed to provide their help with this post-war process, several civilians whose homes and livelihoods have been stripped from them will be left out of these plans due to the simple fact that their claims have not been sufficiently examined.

In an intervention- not a war, remember- where attacking nations must try their best to win over the hearts and minds of those watching from home, convincing them that their cause and methods are indeed ‘just’, one cannot help but wonder why every attempt is not being made to ensure the validity of information. The search for Gaddafi continues, and nobody knows exactly how easy it will be to stabilise Libya. In the meantime, it is our responsibility to think twice about whether the Libyan war as a whole, and not just the cause, was indeed a just war or just unfair.