Libya and the First Human Right

| February 2016
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The New York Times has been running an insightful and informative series of articles on how the United States government decided to opt for a military intervention in Libya in 2011—and specifically the role played by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It again demonstrates how seductive the notion of intervention can be, as well as the continued preference to allow policy choices to be guided by a “morality of intentions” rather than a “morality of results.” It also highlights the importance of recognizing the “first human right”—the right to life and the ability to have some degree of confidence in the stability of one’s surroundings. As Amitai Etzioni has argued, the “right to security takes precedence over all others [since] …. all the others are contingent on the protection of life.”

No one argues that deprivation of civil/political rights and economic rights is a good thing. The ability to associate freely, to have freedom of thought and belief, to be able to obtain a livelihood—all are critical. But while we often focus on places where those rights are denied or abridged, we tend not to think of the fact that chaos is the biggest violator of human rights. The core right to life—the first human right—and the right to enjoy basic security of both the person and property are always negatively impacted by chaos and disorder. Chaos, in turn, precludes any chance to obtain or secure the other panoply of human rights.

Libya prior to 2011 was a tyranny. Compared against a functioning and stable democracy, it was clearly a much less preferable option in terms of governance. It was a tyranny characterized, at least in its earlier days, by a high degree of capriciousness and unpredictability. It was also not clear whether or not the status quo in Libya was preferable to the problems that other countries undergoing transitions from tyranny, even if incomplete, were facing.

Some tyrannies are so oppressive and evil that destroying them at all costs, no matter the consequences, are justified. Other tyrannies have no redeeming qualities, no chance to evolve into something better (or at least less tyrannical).

Was Libya, in 2011, in that category? Faced with a rebellion against its rule, and with the regime promising bloody retribution, particularly against the civilian populace, the motivation for intervention was clear—to stop the regime from carrying out its vengeance. But it doesn’t appear that 1) U.S., European and Arab policymakers considered whether regime removal was the best way both in terms of the resources they were willing to commit and in terms of the overall objective of protecting life and 2) whether the overthrow of the tyranny of Muammar al-Gadhafi and his children would indeed, based on objective assessments (not just on hope), lead to better outcomes.

Libya today is ruled by a tyranny of chaos that is far more destructive and deadly than the tyranny of the old regime. President Obama has admitted as much, acknowledging in his speech before the UN General Assembly last September, “Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.” That result seems to have been foreseeable.

Policy is always a gamble, and success is never guaranteed. Nevertheless, it doesn’t appear that some of these difficult questions were really grappled with, and the assumption seems to be that good intentions would trump any problems. Indeed, if it was clear, as the Times piece and other first-hand accounts have made apparent, that the United States was not going to do much to secure the peace, and if that had been openly admitted, perhaps the course of the Libya operation would have resembled the 1991 Operation Provide Comfort in Northern Iraq, where U.S. airpower was used to create safe havens but not to engage in regime change. And from that, perhaps the African Union plan for political mediation might have had a greater chance for success.

The fragile cease-fire in Syria today is not an optimal situation from either a strategic or ethical consideration, but it is also a belated recognition that a policy of insisting that “Assad must go” without being prepared to do what is necessary to 1) remove Assad and 2) invest the resources and personnel needed to secure “the first right” in the aftermath is also not ethical if it prolongs death, chaos and disorder with no prospects for improvement.

For the past twenty years, our interventions have tended to be aspirational—we want to improve the human rights situation—but often not only have we failed to bring about this better state, we end up compromising the more basic rights of safety and security while the other rights remain difficult to attain. Perhaps the lesson of Libya, moving forward, is to insist on a foreign policy practitioner version of the Hippocratic Oath.

This is a tough call to make because it would appear that the practical implications are to almost never take action against existing tyrannies for fear of worsening the situation. That is one conclusion; the other, of course, is for states engaged in de-tyrannization to commit to the task (in military parlance, to pay attention to what is referred to as phase four operations). At any rate, good intentions are never sufficient.



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Category: Blog, International Law and Human Rights, The Ethics of War and Peace

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