Target Libya: Can air strikes protect civilians?

John Siebert Conventional Weapons, Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2011 Volume 32 Issue 2

In the space of a few short weeks in February and March 2011 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) took the leap from diplomatic and economic preventive measures to sanctioning military intervention in Libya based on Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principles. Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from U.S. and British ships started hitting strategic sites in Libya on March 19, with jet fighters from France and the United States following close behind, in the first stage of setting and enforcing a no-fly zone.

Canada joined this international military coalition with six CF-18 fighter jets, two CP-140 Auroras for surveillance, and HMCS Charlottetown, for a total reported direct involvement of 515 Canadian Forces personnel (Pugliese 2011a/b). A resolution of the Canadian House of Commons in support of this action was unanimously supported by all four federal parties on March 21, with the proviso that the mission be reconsidered by Parliament if it lasted more than three months.

On June 14 the House passed a motion extending Canada’s role in the mission to September 2011.1

The Security Council prominently infused Resolutions 1970 on February 26 and 1973 on March 17 with the language of the international community’s “responsibility to protect” vulnerable civilians,2 while paying heed to the precautionary principles embedded in R2P.

The 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report codified a stream of international norms and practice from what was then called “humanitarian interventions.”3 Non-intervention in other states is embedded in the UN Charter as a valid means of protecting the weak from the predations of the strong. The R2P framers elevated international humanitarian law to a level similar if not equal to that of sovereignty. If a state is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens from immanent peril, then the international community has a responsibility to intervene—if certain conditions are met.

The first and most important threshold for an R2P military intervention is “just cause.” The ICISS report (2001, p. 29) states explicitly that “for military action ever to be defensible the circumstances must be grave indeed.” Only genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing, real or apprehended, can trigger an R2P military intervention.

Verifiable facts in Libya do not clearly prove the situation had reached the “just cause” threshold by March 17. What began in February as apparently peaceful civilian protest quickly devolved into a civil war. Serious threats of attack and the violation of civilians’ human rights by government forces were observed. 

It is difficult to establish from reliable public sources the number of people actually killed in Libya in the lead-up to the international military intervention. Commentator Juan Cole (2011), considering the numbers of dead reported by the Transitional Authority in Benghazi, concludes, “If 8,000 was an exaggeration, simply ‘thousands’ was not.” Stephen Zunes (2011), an opponent of the intervention, writes that “some estimates run as high as 8,000, some as low as 1,000, but most estimates put the number of civilians killed during the five weeks between the start of the uprising and the Western intervention at approximately 1,700.”

Roland Paris (2011) helpfully points to the necessity and difficulty of measuring a what if: “If [a military intervention] works, a potentially devastating event has been averted. Paradoxically, however, it becomes impossible to prove that the devastating event would necessarily have transpired if not for the intervention.” Paris quotes White House official Dennis Ross, who reportedly said in a private meeting that there is “the real or imminent possibility that up to 100,000 people could be massacred and everyone would blame [the U.S.] for it.”

The principle of “right intention” by the international community in intervening also is open to interpretation in the Libya case. The ICISS report made allowance for mixed motives, but required that the primary motive for a military intervention be to “avert human suffering.” Zunes (2011) says in blunter language what the ICISS report concluded about mixed motives: “Hypocrisy and double standards regarding military intervention does not automatically mean that military intervention in this case is necessarily wrong.”

It is not possible now to know what the impact on civilians might have been had Libyan troops advanced further on Benghazi and other insurgent-held cities. They might have stopped short of massacre and only targeted opposition combatants. The diplomatic sanctions and proposed alternatives might have taken hold and restrained the Libyan military. On the other hand, to stop a slaughter in Benghazi, military intervention might have been the last and only option.

“Right authority” as defined by the ICISS was certainly secured through UNSC Resolutions 1970 and 1973. With the passage of the resolutions, the legality of the military intervention is settled. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter has been invoked to “use all available means” to respond to this threat to vulnerable civilians and to international peace and security.

Legitimacy is related to legality, but is not the same thing. Early support from the Arab League for the imposition of a no-fly zone against one of its own members contributed to the mission’s legitimacy.

One of the most difficult issues about the Libyan intervention arises from the R2P operational principles that “rules of engagement fit the operational concept” and “force protection cannot become the principal objective.”

The Achilles heel in this military intervention is the focus on air assets and the uncertainty they lend to the primary stated mission, which is the protection of vulnerable civilians. Air strikes are not the neat, precision instruments they are touted to be when the TV news shows tanks being obliterated. Bombs are a very present danger to civilians and quite imprecise in their effects. The virtue of an air war to the interveners is that there is very little threat to the bombers once air defences have been neutralized. The ICISS report (2001, p. 63) put its finger on the problem when considering “force protection” or keeping the intervening military force safe: “Where force protection becomes the prime concern, withdrawal—perhaps followed by a new and more robust initiative—may be the best course.”

Veteran human security advocate Mary Kaldor (2011) focuses on the weakness of an air approach to protect civilians in Libya. While she praises the “huge achievement” of the UNSC for acting “just in time to prevent Gadhafi forces from overrunning Benghazi,” she rejects the Resolution 1973 principle that excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” She argues that international intervention should focus on providing robust security for vulnerable civilians in UN-protected areas or safe havens.

Kaldor responds to the politically expressed hope of many for Gadhafi’s removal from power with the caution to stay focused on protecting civilians rather than degrading or defeating Gadhafi’s military forces. Ultimately, what the military intervention achieves in protecting citizens in Benghazi or elsewhere must also set the stage for a sustainable peace in Libya. The removal of the current regime could usher in a prolonged period of instability and entrenched violence: “If the Gadhafi regime is overthrown by force, the division is likely to persist, leading to a ‘new war’ rather than democracy.”

Kaldor well knows that the prohibition on foreign troops entering Libya is almost universally supported—in Resolution 1973, by the intervener nations in the coalition, by the Arab League, and by the armed opposition in Libya. She counters that “our knee-jerk reaction to crisis is air strikes because that is what we have the capability to do.” The need for properly established and defended safe havens remains. The troops on the ground could be Arab or African rather than American or French. They would be peacekeepers and not invading troops.

UNSC Resolution 1973 makes international military action in Libya legal, but the results of the military intervention over time may put a spike in the mission’s legitimacy. The decisive actions of the international community under R2P principles likely prevented the massacre of many vulnerable civilians in Benghazi and elsewhere in Libya, but we cannot know for certain.

Concerns about the primary use of air assets to protect vulnerable citizens are genuine. To remain consistent with R2P principles the ongoing conduct of military operations must be restrained by the primary goal of protecting non-combatants—not focussed on regime change or support for one side in a civil war.

Significant diplomatic initiatives within the African Union and among Western powers and Russia are attempting to find a resolution to the underlying conflict in Libya. Kaldor’s warnings should be heeded. Reliance on air power must be coupled with the requirement to anticipate how the military intervention can best enable conditions for a sustainable peace in Libya. Canadian support for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Libya should be equal to or greater than Canada’s military contribution to the international coalition.



1. See Project Ploughshares Briefing 11-2, “Libya and R2P: The failure of bombing raids to protect vulnerable civilians,” June 2011.

2. Previous UNSC resolutions referring to R2P have used the oblique reference of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the Outcome Document of the World Summit in 2005, rather than the language of R2P as outlined in the ICISS report. See, for example, Resolutions 1706 and 1769 on Darfur, Sudan.

3. In the course of the ICISS hearings humanitarian agencies strongly objected to the use of the word “humanitarian” for any type of military activity. As a result, the term “humanitarian intervention” has generally been dropped from use.


Cole, Juan. 2011. An open letter to the left on Libya. openDemocracy, March 27.

Falk, Richard. 2011. Gaddafi, moral interventionism and revolution., March 23.

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. 2001. The Responsibility to Protect. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre.

Kaldor, Mary. 2011. Libya: War or humanitarian intervention? openDemocracy, March 29.

Paris, Roland. 2011. Intervention in Libya flawed, perhaps, but better than inaction. Globe and Mail, March 28.

Pugliese, Dave. 2011a. Sending Auroras to Libyan campaign won’t affect surveillance of Canadian territory according to MacKay. David Pugliese’s Defence Watch, Ottawa Citizen, March 24.

———. 2011b. 515 Canadian Forces personnel involved in Libyan campaign. David Pugliese’s Defence Watch, Ottawa Citizen, March 30.

Zunes, Stephen. 2011. Libya: “R2P” and humanitarian intervention are concepts ripe for exploitation. Foreign Policy in Focus, Blog, March 26.

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