Is the international intervention in Libya a justifiable use of military force? A review of just-war criteria provides a mixed picture. Protecting civilians is certainly a just cause. The air strikes have already saved lives and helped prevent the mass killing of more civilians. A humanitarian catastrophe has been averted, according to Nicholas Kristof. Qaddafi’s military advances have been slowed or reversed, and his air force has been neutralized. As Juan Cole reports, Tobrik is no longer under siege, Benghazi has been saved from massacres that started last weekend, and Misrata and other cities have avoided conquest, although they remain under attack by government forces.
The international action has proper multilateral authority from the Arab League and the United Nations. The UN Security Council resolution stated that the Qaddafi regime’s “widespread and systematic attacks” against civilians “may amount to crimes against humanity” and demanded “an immediate ceasefire and end to all attacks against civilians.” The Arab League statement declared that Qaddafi’s regime has lost sovereignty because of its attacks against civilians. It urged the UN to “shoulder its responsibilities” in imposing a no-fly zone and creating “safe zones” in the country.
Libyans rebelling against Qaddafi have expressed support and gratitude for the international intervention. As Kristof reports, Benghazi residents recently organized a “thank-you rally,” and Libyans who were fleeing to Egypt have started returning. This is military intervention has the support of the population it’s intended to benefit.
Still, proper authority is needed for U.S. participation. Under the Constitution and the War Powers Act, the president must have legislative approval to sustain the presence of U.S. forces in military operations abroad. Any continuing U.S. military involvement in Libya should have congressional authorization. President Barack Obama should work with legislators to arrange congressional debate and a vote on authorization for the operation.
What about the criterion of “last resort”? No attempt was made to seek a diplomatic solution. Tripoli initially responded to the threat of international attack by proposing a ceasefire, but Libyan forces intensified military attacks, and Qaddafi vowed to fight to the bitter end. The United States and other countries felt the need to act urgently to prevent further civilian deaths—along with the consolidation of Qaddafi’s military conquests. This may have been a case where taking the time for a thorough diplomatic dialogue would have cost many lives and given decisive military advantage to Qaddafi.
The operation’s “probability of success” is difficult to ascertain. Rebel forces control about half the country, according to Juan Cole. With the backing of international air support they have been able to push back government forces in some places. The end is not in sight, however, and it’s unclear how military intervention will contribute to a stable political settlement.
And a political solution will be necessary, with the rebel movement likely to play a central role. Little is known about the political intentions of the rebels. They refer to Tripoli as the country’s capital and have declared their intention to hold Libya together as a unified state. That will help in negotiations to create a balanced and inclusive new government in which all tribal communities can participate fully.
So far international forces have attempted to apply the principle of discrimination in the use of force and have acted cautiously to avoid civilian casualties. U.S. military commanders have consistently emphasized the goal of protecting civilians. International forces have refrained from bombing in urban areas and have focused their attacks on government military forces. International journalists have not yet reported extensive civilian casualties from the air attacks.
Still, lives can be saved by other means. As Robert Johansen has recommended, the UN Security Council should establish protected humanitarian corridors near Libya’s borders. That would speed the delivery of humanitarian aid, and would provide a location where defectors could safely qualify for amnesty from future criminal prosecution. Creating such corridors would allow for a more concerted and effective effort by the international coalition and the rebels to encourage loyalist Libyan officials to switch sides.
Also, steps can be taken to strengthen targeted sanctions against Qaddafi and his family, and to support the International Criminal Court as it prepares indictments against senior Libyan officials who do not defect and are responsible for atrocities.
True, the international intervention fails to meet all the criteria for a just use of force. But on balance it can be considered a justifiable if risky action that has prevented Qaddafi from crushing the rebellion—and saved lives.
David Cortright is the director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge University Press).