Humanitarian Action in Complex Emergencies: Managing linkages with security agendas

Brief Author: 
Conor Foley

Debates about humanitarian action in complex emergencies raise fundamental problems about the protection of human rights under international law. The number of humanitarian interventions has increased dramatically over the last decade and the debates about their legitimacy have become increasingly controversial. For humanitarian agencies, this debate raises particular dilemmas since it often creates an explicit tension between the principles of ‘neutrality’ and ‘humanity’. This paper explores whether there is a contradiction between these principles in international law and practice.


On 20 October 2011, Mummar Gaddafi, the President of Libya, was travelling in a convoy of vehicles near his hometown of Sirt and was targeted by a United States’ Predator Missile. This was followed by a French air strike on a road about 3 kilometers west of Sirt, killing dozens of loyalist fighters. Gaddafi survived but was shortly afterwards captured by a rebel militia.1 Videos taken on mobile phones show them beating Gaddafi and manhandling him on the back of a utility vehicle. He pleads with his captors, saying, ‘What are you doing? It’s not allowed in Islamic law. . . Do you know what is right or wrong?’ The men scream, ‘Muammar, you dog!’ as blood pours from various parts of his body. One video then shows him being sodomized with some kind of stick or knife. A gun is placed against his head and he is thrown onto a car, then dragged along the ground by his hair. Shots ring out, hidden from the camera, and his lifeless and badly scarred body is subsequently shown lying on the ground. Initial reports from the new transitional government claimed that Gaddafi was killed in crossfire, although it subsequently ordered an inquiry into his death.

The French and American military action was taken under NATO auspices and was legally justified in part by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973, which ‘Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, . . . . to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.’2 In the resolution, the Security Council Resolution 1973 imposed a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya but also ‘demanded that Libyan authorities comply with their obligations under international law and take all measures to protect civilians and meet their basic needs and to ensure the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance.’3

The UNSC adopted the resolution by 10 votes in favor and none against, with five abstentions: Brazil, China, Germany, India, and Russia. A few days after it was passed, NATO launched air strikes against Gaddafi’s headquarters in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. The UK prime minister told Parliament that the aim of these attacks had been to protect civilians and not to target Gaddafi. The UK prime minister said the United Nations (UN) resolution was ‘limited in its scope. It explicitly does not provide legal authority for action to bring about Gaddafi’s removal from power by military means.’4 As the conflict progressed, however, it became increasingly clear that NATO was pursuing a regime-change agenda, for example by refusing all offers of a cease-fire that would have left Gaddafi in power.

Estimates of the numbers of civilians and fighters killed during the Libyan conflict vary. Prior to NATO’s military action, the UN estimated that between one thousand and two thousand people had been killed, mainly by Gaddafi’s forces, and the trigger for the intervention was to stop the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi from falling into his hands, in March 2011. By the end of the six-month conflict, the Health Minister for the new revolutionary government estimated that 30,000 people had been killed and 50,000 injured.5 The rebels subjected the city of Sirt to the type of siege that Gaddafi would have probably imposed on Benghazi, and a large number of civilians were killed during the bombardment.

During the conflict NATO claimed that its air strikes had been carried out with such care and precision that it had avoided ‘any confirmed civilian casualties’. However, a subsequent investigation by the New York Times found dozens of credible reports of civilian deaths in many distinct attacks, which a monitoring group claimed NATO had previously refused to investigate.6 There are also numerous accounts of atrocities committed by the rebel forces that NATO was providing with air support. Human Rights Watch reported the discovery of 53 bodies, military apparently executed – with their hands tied – after Sirt city fell.7 Amnesty International has produced comprehensive reports of mass abduction and detention, beating and routine torture, killings and atrocities by the rebel militias, with black Africans being subject to considerable persecution as supposed supporters of the previous regime.8

Whether the intervention caused more deaths than it saved is debatable. The uprising in Libya was one of many that occurred in the Middle East during the so-called ‘Arab spring’ of 2011. Some were bloodily suppressed, some resulted in the overthrow of the rulers of the countries concerned, while the outcome of others remains in doubt at the time of that this briefing is being written. All of the uprisings occurred in countries that had suffered many years of dictatorial rule in which human rights abuses were widespread. Some argue that this alone should be sufficient reason why the international community should have supported them with external intervention, up to and including the use of military force. Others maintain, particularly since the invasion of Iraq, that interventions should be restricted to circumstances in which there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis, which has reached a certain threshold of seriousness, that they should be legally authorized by the UN Security Council and that they should only be undertaken where there is a reasonable prospect that they will do more good than harm.

1This account draws on a wide variety of media sources that published details about the killing of Gaddafi as well as widely-circulated videos of the event.
2UN Security Council Resolution 1973, 17 March 2011
4BBC News, ‘Libya: Removing Gaddafi not allowed says Cameron’, 21 March 2011
5Associated Press (San Francisco Chronicle). Retrieved 9 September 2011 6New York Times, ‘In strikes on Libya by NATO an unspoken civilian toll’, 17 December 2011
7Human Rights Watch, Libya: Apparent Execution of 53 Gaddafi Supporters, 23 October 2011
8Amnesty International, Detention abuses staining the new Libya, Index: MDE 19/036/2011

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