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How The Global Community responded to the Libyan conflict in 2011

Updated: Nov 17, 2020


When it comes to responses to armed conflicts in Africa there have been varying levels of success. The issues that cause these conflicts are multi-layered and therefore require a multifaceted approach. African conflicts usually demand the attention of the global community due to the opportunity for resources extraction or the threat of spilling over and affecting a region. Ghanaian economist George Ayittey posited the notion of ‘African solutions to African problems’ as Western-led initiatives usually fail to fully understand the depth of the issues that lead to conflicts.

This essay will discuss the response to the Libyan revolution in 2011. The global community constitutes to a variety of different groups. More often than not the global community is divided on how to respond to armed conflicts, especially in Africa. In Libya’s case, there were two camps. Those who were for military intervention and those who wanted to take a more diplomatic approach. The UN, NATO and other bodies fell under the pro-military intervention side and the AU alone fell under the more diplomatic side. Within each side, there are nuances that will be explored. Though the military intervention side was pursued it is still beneficial to assess the alternative proposal that the AU put forward. Looking at the limitations to each approach.

Non-interventionist ideology has been flawed in certain periods leading to an escalation of events, like in Rwanda. Alternatively, intervening hasn’t always led to the stability and has further exacerbated tensions like in Angola. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how a purely militaristic approach, which excluded the regional bodies failed to bring about the stability NATO had hoped for.


The conflict in Libya had been brewing years before it hit its climax in February 2011. There was already deep-seated discontent against Gaddafi’s regime. By that point, he had been in power for 42 years and the opposition was growing louder especially as those from outside of Libya became more aware. The peak was on 15th February 2011 where a lawyer and writer Idris Al-Mismari was arrested, for requesting compensation for victims affected by the 1996 prison massacre.

The uprising erupted that day and led to clashes with the armed forces in Bengazi. A few days later it had sparked a nationwide rebellion. What started as a response to an injustice escalated as an outlet for the years of discontent.

This is was with the backdrop of the Arab Springs in Egypt and Tunisia. The context is very important as there was a mood to dispose of leaders who had been in power for extremely long periods of time. It was a call for transparent democratic processes and greater civilian participation.

Thus, when the opposition groups in Libya communicated their discontent and aims, it was received more receptively by the international media. This applied pressure to the global community as protests were occurring in their nations.

Alongside this Gaddafi had been a harsh critic of Western imperialism and didn’t mince his words. His contempt for aspects of Western ideology was perceived as anti-democratic rather than pan-Africanist. Gadhafi was using inflammatory language “that there would be "no mercy" and that his troops would go house to house looking for "traitors." "Capture the rats," he told followers.” This dehumanising language was said to be an indicator of the early stages of a genocide. Which created a sense of urgency as the global community sought to prevent a humanitarian crisis and protect the Libyan people.

The global community had differing opinions on how to tackle the worrying news coming out of Libya. The countries which appeared as the leaders were France, the US, the UK and Canada. Their strategy on how to aid the opposition groups was to remove Gaddafi to help usher in democracy. The mission was led by NATO and supported by the UN who opted for military intervention despite the wishes of the AU, who preferred a more diplomatic approach.

The Role of NATO/UN

The global community didn’t share a homogeneous voice, there were two camps, in this section, we will assess the pro-military intervention argument. The UN but specifically NATO emerged as the leader for the pro interventionists side. French President at the time Nicholas Sarkozy was a vocal proponent of intervention. Citing the high possibility of a genocide as the reason why they need to intervene. Within two weeks he had called upon the UN, NATO and EU to take action. The UK and US supported Sarkozy in his analysis and strategy.

The League of Arab States (LAS) came and supported the anti-Gaddafi position, by suspending Libya’s membership. They said they would reinstate their membership once the oppressive violence had ceased. The suspension was more symbolic as LAS had no capacity to solve or take charge on the conflict, it gave greater credibility to the pro-military intervention argument. Also, it combated critiques that a NATO led intervention was simply a repeat of colonial occupation, as LAS approved of their strategy.

The issue in Libya was then fast-tracked into the security council, as it was deemed to be extremely time-sensitive. The UN security council debated and discussed the issue which led them to pass the 1973 resolution on the 17th of March. The responsibility to protect (R2P) allowed for NATO led forces to intervene as they believed that non-intervention would cause a bigger humanitarian crisis. This was the first time that the R2P was used despite having a functioning government and against their will. The passing of the resolution allowed them to impose a no-fly zone and an arms embargo. They believed that by controlling the airspace over Libya it would limit Gaddafi and his supporters from mobilising and prohibit the genocide. Gaddafi did agree to the arms embargo, yet he was not allowed to remain in government according to the P3. The UK, US and France who were already debating intervention within their own countries began implementing their strategies.

By the 19th of March, the first airstrikes occurred thus beginning the seven-month long intervention in Libya. From calculated airstrikes to troops on the ground. A few NATO allies became worried about the length of the intervention of Libya. They thought it would be a matter of weeks instead of months. When they killed Gaddafi in October, they declared that it a success and ended their intervention. What started as a mission to protect civilians ended up being the removal of a legitimate regime.

The limitations of NATO/UN

Immediately after the operation, it was deemed to be a success. As their primary aim was to avoid a genocide and by killing Gaddafi, on 20th October this was achieved. By the 31st of October NATO’s mandate was ended and they had to withdraw from the nation according to the UN security Council vote on the 27th of October. As time went on the problems quickly began to reveal itself. One of the biggest critiques to the NATO intervention was the evidence they used to justify the intervention in the first place. Years later files and reports have discovered that a genocide was highly unlikely. Also, that the force being used was over exaggerated, simply to remove Gaddafi as the opportunity has presented itself.

Post intervention left Libya as a crisis state, with no fact-finding mission or post intervention strategy. NATO’s mandate was R2P, from a potential genocide and hostile government. With that government disposed of, there was no plan on how to build a nation after. The lack of investment in building a proper foundation led to the long-term demise of Libya as a functioning state. Years later we can see the detrimental effects of the intervention without a proper implementation plan as Libya has had seven prime ministers in only four years after Gaddafi’s death.

Intervening despite there being a legitimate regime didn’t sit well with some nations, due to the precedent it would set. Within the UN prominent states opposed to military intervention, significantly China, Russia, India and Germany abstained from the vote. Yet despite their concerns and reservations Russia and China didn’t utilise their veto power to block the intervention. Some agreed to the no-fly zone but disagreed with the troops and airstrikes, but it would be impossible to enforce a no-fly zone without troops. With no clear plan as to how removing the current regime would provide protection for the civilians and the dismissal of the AU framework. NATO only had their option left. Taking a purely results-based approach the NATO operation was deemed to be a success. In the short term, there was optimism as a new coalition of groups had formed a government. However, that success was short-lived as Libya has failed to form a stable and functioning government since the intervention.

The Role of the AU

Libya’s positionality further complicated the conflict as they were members of several bodies that cut across both Africa,