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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, the Middle East and globally. Yet when the conflict arose the AU and the LAS took different stances. The LAS simply suspended their membership until the violence was ceased. Whereas the Peace and Security Council of the AU issued a statement condemning the violence. They were open and willing to pursue a more diplomatic approach and produced a road map to solve the issues.

This was a direct contrast to the stance taken by the UN Peace and Security Council and NATO who were quick to propose military intervention. By 2011 the AU PSC had some experience in dealing with conflicts and managing violence. For example, they had deployed the African Standby Force in Sudan and Burundi which avoided mass violence.

Their main concern was disposing of a legitimate government with no viable alternative, so their peace agreement stated Gaddafi could continue ruling. He would just have to cease the violence and step aside when ready.

The global community from the EU to the Arab league recognised Libya’s National Transnational Council (TNC) as the legitimate government and wanted the removal of Gaddafi.

Despite the decisions already confirmed to commit to airstrikes and no-fly zones, the AU still wanted to pursue diplomatic efforts as their position was to promote peace and security. They saw the NATO approach as a way to further ensure violence and create instability. The AU were only able to reach Libya for peace talks in April. Due to the no-fly zone being implemented weeks before. When they had reached, Gaddafi actually agreed to the terms and conditions yet the NTC didn’t see them as being harsh enough Gaddafi and rejected it.

The AU was ultimately side-lined as they were not involved in these discussions with NATO and since the LAS position aligned more with their approach, they deemed Libya to be an Arab state, not an African one. During the intervention, the AU ad-hoc committee and AU PSC continued to try and implement their roadmap. But it had no support from the major players nor the NTC. It was only Gaddafi who supported their approach. As he was the enemy in this context it didn’t add any credibility to their approach. The lack of corporation between the two approaches ended up being the detriment of Libya.

The limitations of the AU

The AU had issued an alternative action to the UN and NATO, yet they were side-lined. Prominent NATO members had already agreed upon the actions to take by the time the AU was considered or consulted. At first glance, it appears that the AU had little to no say or power in the matter. At a deeper inspection, it was due to a lack of unity between AU members a lack of resources that hindered their ability to lead on Libya.

Though the UN Peace and Security Council has the P5 there are rotating members who also have a say on matters. When the 1973 resolution was being debated, there were three African countries who were rotating members. Gabon, South Africa and Nigeria who all voted to approve the military action, despite the AU’s proposed position against military intervention. Both South Africa and Nigeria are large economies with a lot of influence. If they had voted against the resolution, it probably would’ve gone ahead but it could have been a symbolic moment that increased the legitimacy for an alternative.

Another contention between the AU and its members was in regard to recognising the NTC. The AU was discussing with the NTC but had proposed that Gaddafi continue as leader. Yet Nigeria and Ethiopia both recognised the council. This undermined the AU as Ethiopia is where the AU HQ is based. By this point, Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia had publicly supported the UN-NATO position but just not military intervention. The contradictions and lack of unity errored its credibility as an alternative.

Additionally, they had a lack of resources. The AU is primarily funded through external bodies such as the EU or individual countries, primarily Western-based. Due to this, they have to request funds if they want to undertake any peace and security work. They did not have the capacity to simply orchestrate and fund their own mission like NATO. This was a major obstacle in providing a viable alternative. The AU had to request funding in order to implement the peacekeeping forces and organise peace talks. This time the funding was delayed. With the pace at which decisions were being made, by the time any substantial impact could’ve been made. The no-fly zone was in place, drone strikes had begun and the NTC was already globally recognised.

There have been critiques lobbied at the AU that their wishes to have kept Gaddafi in place is because of his close relationship with the AU. Gaddafi was one of the key figures in transforming the OAU to the AU and paying membership fees. Due to this connection, many outside of Africa saw the AU’s refusal to call for his removal as a vested interest. Coupled with the fact that many of the leaders were in similar positions. Post-independence leaders who are still in power. It would open them up to the same scrutiny and may encourage rebellions within their own nations.

With the benefit of hindsight, many have looked back at the AU position and concluded that it would’ve been better to follow their framework. With the limitations stated it is likely that the UN or NATO would’ve stepped as they were likely to overcome the roadblocks. The lack of a unified position from the strongest players in the AU very much undermined their position. Alongside a lack of resources made their alternative very tenuous at the time where the context demanded action.


The prevailing response of a NATO led intervention without a strategy for post-intervention, yielded worse results than anticipated. The exclusion of the AU was deliberate and disheartening. But the capacity of the AU to lead on such a matter was not there. The inability for the AU to have a cohesive thought does hold it back but it is not the be-all and end-all. There are many times we see a differing in opinion among the P5, yet things still get done.

The swiftness to action while effective in some cases, in Libya was a detriment. It led to inconsistent and unsubstantial claims driving responses rather than hard facts. A 2016 British parliamentary report about the NATO mission concluded that the intelligence used to justify the intervention was not wholly credible.

R2P is still perceived as a cloak for Western imperialism to some, an association that will be hard to shake off. It set a new precedent about how the R2P can be interpreted in the short term to legitimise military action. The dismissal of the AU in the proceedings further reinforced that narrative. It doesn’t reassure African nations that NATO or the UN will override their sovereignty or decisions in the future when they see fit. As the effects of the intervention unfolded it made NATO members especially rethink how they deal with conflicts. With the influx of migrants in the Mediterranean waters and the alleged slavery auctions taking place, Libya, which was once a stable county, is now defined as a failed state. The AU cannot even feel vindicated as now they have to deal with another humanitarian crisis when they are already stretched. The case of Libya produced multiple lessons in responding to conflicts in Africa, which should inform global leaders in the future.

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