Death toll and the Libya intervention

Courtesy of cia.gov

Courtesy of cia.gov

Numbers matter. The amount of people killed or who could potentially be killed is critically important when assessing the justification for a military intervention.

In the case of Libya, one of the ostensible justifications for Western intervention was to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi. Did we have good reason to believe there was going to be a genocidal massacre there?

Back in April 2011, Alan Kuperman thought not:

The best evidence that Khadafy did not plan genocide in Benghazi is that he did not perpetrate it in the other cities he had recaptured either fully or partially — including Zawiya, Misurata, and Ajdabiya, which together have a population greater than Benghazi.

…Nor did Khadafy ever threaten civilian massacre in Benghazi, as Obama alleged. The “no mercy’’ warning, of March 17, targeted rebels only, as reported by The New York Times, which noted that Libya’s leader promised amnesty for those “who throw their weapons away.’’ Khadafy even offered the rebels an escape route and open border to Egypt, to avoid a fight “to the bitter end.’’

If bloodbath was unlikely, how did this notion propel US intervention? The actual prospect in Benghazi was the final defeat of the rebels. To avoid this fate, they desperately concocted an impending genocide to rally international support for “humanitarian’’ intervention that would save their rebellion.

We saw death toll estimates by the rebels ranging from 30,000 to 50,000. These are huge numbers, though they don’t quite reach the proportions of the current Syrian civil war, where UN estimates claim the death toll could be as high as 70,000.

But just two months ago, Libya’s National Transition Council released a revised estimate that put the number of rebel supporters killed at 4,700, with some 2,100 missing from both sides. According to a report in the Guardian, the NTC’s “research so far suggests that the death toll for the old regime may be about the same as among revolutionaries, if not less.”

If this is true, and if we assume Kuperman’s assessment of the risk of a massacre in Benghazi to be true, then clearly the intervention was not justifiable on humanitarian grounds. And it must be remembered that the intervention was initially authorized on the narrow grounds of protecting civilians in Benghazi, but quickly expanded to include the goal of regime change. The US was basically choosing a side in a civil war, and it was not a humanitarian intervention. (Vijay Prashad has a good article on this in The Hindu.)

It should be noted that even if there had been a higher death toll in the war, it would still have had questionable legal grounds (at best) given that it was specifically limited to stopping a massacre in Benghazi.

In assessing the wisdom of any military intervention, even the supposedly “humanitarian” ones, it is not enough to look at the immediate affects. While someone like Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein might be murderous dictators, an intervention can only have some grounds for justification if there is a reason to believe the situation will somehow improve after they are removed from power. That certainly didn’t happen in the case of Iraq, and it is far from clear that Libya is any better off now.

Affects of the intervention also ripple out from that country. Arms that were used in Libya (mostly by Qaddafi, it seems) during the civil war were not secured after the intervention. Some of those same weapons fell into the hands of the jihadi militants that attacked the gas facility in Algeria. Many are now in the hands of Islamist rebels in Mali, where France has intervened – on humanitarian grounds, of course.

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