The Libyan ‘revolution’ followed a series of uprisings and protests across the Middle East and North Africa in what has become known as the ‘Arab spring’. Protests against Gaddafi and his regime occurred in Benghazi, in early 2011, and the consequences were very bloody compared to earlier examples. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, prior to the Libyan example, had been relatively peaceful and some progress was made post-revolution. Gaddafi’s response was incredibly heavy handed and the western sphere saw unarmed protesters being fired upon. Certain writers, like Alan Kuperman, have contested whether these protesters were unarmed or not. For the international community events like this pose difficult questions to answer, such as: is it practical to use force to protect civilians from their own state? From a realist perspective it is a dangerous idea to intervene and disrupt national order, but the prevailing liberalist approach has been that good can come from the use of force in such situations.

The UN resolution 1973 was passed March 17 2011, with 10 members voting for and 5 abstaining – including Russia and China – with none against. The resolution created a no-fly zone over Libya and stated that all means necessary, short of a ground invasion, should be taken to protect Libyan citizens. NATO soon agreed to take control of enforcing the no-fly zone and to mount the air strikes upon Libya. The air strikes focused upon taking out the Libyan air defence system and then shifted the focus to the men on the ground. The strikes targeted Gaddafi’s advantage in armoured vehicles and tanks, which the rebels could not match. Such targets were easily destroyed when they moved, particularly in open desert, not posing the difficulties that urbanised areas do – which NATO struggled to combat in Kosovo. The intervention itself was much more successful than earlier examples and it formally ended on 31October 2011.

‘The resolution did not provide an explicit mandate to provide direct military aid to the rebels, which would probably have provoked a veto from Russia or China’.[1] This is one of the major issues of the Libyan intervention, the air strikes may have depleted Gaddafi’s advantage in armour and artillery, but only with the military aid provided by NATO states could the rebels have gained the upper hand. It was clear that very early on the mission aim had shifted from that of humanitarian intervention and protecting Libyan citizens, to that of overthrowing Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. It was naïve of the west to believe that they could simply leave so soon after and stability would be restored.

Post war Libya is far from stable and there is certainly a case to argue that the situation is more volatile and harmful to the people of Libya than it was under Gaddafi. In the wake of victory for the rebels there were scores of reprisal killings against loyalist Gaddafi supporters and thousands of Libyan were expelled. Racial violence against black citizens soared in areas such as Tawergha and previously suppressed Islamist groups emerged after the revolution. The post-war chaos spilt into Mali, Syria and encouraged Islamist militants beyond these countries.

It is easy for the Western politicians and the media to portray the intervention in Libya as a ‘humanitarian success’ for averting further bloodbaths and assisting the fall of a dictatorial leader. It provides evidence to fulfil NATO’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept, which has been at the forefront of foreign policy agendas in recent times. The example of Libya has presented problems that can arise from humanitarian intervention. The west have, arguably, exacerbated the issues in the region and strengthened the cause of Militant groups – particularly after the flow of Libyan arms out of the country. It has also shown the limitation of air strikes as a form of humanitarian intervention alone. Nobody wanted troops on the ground but there is a question of whether peacekeeping troops should have been allocated to the region to ease the transition.

The dangerous precedent that I believe has been set with the Libyan example regards to Russia and future Russian actions. The UN sanction 1973 was majorly escalated, through the role of NATO, to something that would have almost certainly been vetoed by Russia otherwise. Russia has always been suspicious of NATO, particularly with an American lead, and its encroachment upon Russia. The ties between Gaddafi and Russia may have been small compared to other affiliations, but the Russians would not have supported his downfall. I believe that Libya may act as a precedent for Russia to veto any similar interventions and could possibly have influenced Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine.


James Duncan



Barrie, Douglas, Libya’s Lessons: the air campaign, Survival 54, 30 November 2012

Kuperman, Alan, A model humanitarian intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya campaign, International security 38, 2013

[1] Libya’s Lessons: the air campaign, Douglas Barrie

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