We Must Hold Firm on Libya

Civilian deaths have led to doubts over Nato’s Libya campaign. Yet to stop now would be a huge defeat for humanitarian order

Article by David Owen, published in The Guardian, Thursday, 23 June, 2011

Nato’s operation in the air over Libya started on 19 March under a UN resolution and at the specific request of the Arab League. Its immediate effect was to ensure that Benghazi was not overrun by the Gaddafi forces who were poised for victory.
To ensure there was no Russian or Chinese veto, and to satisfy some EU members who were not ready to be part of a military intervention, it was necessary to strictly limit Nato’s activity.

Undoubtedly the timescale for starting negotiations between the Libyan parties has been lengthened by these limitations, but that need not be a bad thing. At various times one or other of the fighting parties have believed that they could triumph and they could establish a victor’s peace.

But the divisions within Libya are longstanding and necessitate difficult and possibly protracted negotiations. What Nato has done is to prevent Gaddafi using his military to perpetuate his position of power. When negotiations start, he and his sons must not be the controlling influence in the talks.

This week, two Nato bombing raids over Libya resulted in civilian deaths, and doubts were expressed on the campaign, by Italy and by Amr Moussa of the Arab League. In addition, yesterday defence secretary Liam Fox revealed that the cost of the military operation to Britain alone could reach £260m within the first six months.
Of course, in any prolonged military engagement it is understandable that some countries and leaders will start to express anxieties. Italy was the colonial power in Libya, they are very exposed economically and politically, and face considerable problems over refugees fleeing the country. It is reasonable they are raising their voice in favour of negotiations. Likewise, it is understandable that some members of the Arab League raise questions as to when negotiations will start. There can, however, be no definite timescale. We have to weaken Gaddafi’s hold on power more than we have already done.

Gaddafi at one stage looked as if he would capture Misrata. Fortunately that did not happen and the liberation fighters, helped by Nato fire from the air and sea, won back control. At one point I thought that, rather than let Misrata fall, we would need to go back to the UN for a tougher resolution; but fortunately that was not necessary.

Now we should wait, give Gaddafi no respite, and start to lay the foundations for a negotiated settlement. Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, is right to call for more detailed planning for a post-Gaddafi Libya.

Anyone contemplating early negotiations in Libya should ask themselves what would be the effect of a premature move to the negotiating table confirming Gaddafi in power? Answer: President Assad and his brother in Syria would feel even more confident about ignoring sanctions, and would continue to use force in totally unacceptable ways. Nato cannot deal with Damascus through a no-fly zone, but sanctions should be toughened.

What would be the effect on the Bahraini authorities – under heavy criticism for establishing a military tribunal to try doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters – if they saw Gaddafi getting away with it? What would be the effect on Iran, whose rulers are only too keen to suppress peaceful protesters and who resent every call for the establishment of human rights? The Arab spring is working its way through different timescales. To abandon security council action in Libya, because we don’t have sufficient patience or confidence to hold firm, would be a huge defeat for humanitarian order.
Let us also remember that in Kosovo in 1999 – where we acted without UN authority – the Nato bombing campaign was heavily criticised and there were many appeals for a premature ceasefire. The Serb defeat came through the negotiation in Belgrade led by the Russians, but the bombing campaign was an essential preliminary.

The experienced negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, has suggested asking Libya’s neighbours – Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria – to talk to all the key figures in Libya and pave the way for detailed negotiations on a permanent settlement.

When the time is right there will be a ceasefire, and Libyans will determine their destiny and settle the issues surrounding Gaddafi and his sons and their response to the international criminal court.

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