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Is it a Breach of International Law to Assist Rebels in Libya?

As the International Court of Justice has made clear on more than one occasion, the principle of non-intervention prohibits a state “to intervene, directly or indirectly, with or without armed force, in support of an internal opposition in another state.”

The merits or otherwise of the rebels’ cause is immaterial: whether they are fighting to depose a brutal tyrant or a model democratic regime, no state may legally assist them. (Source: The Australian, April 15, 2011)

So, even without regard to Cameron’s latest plan of sending, whisper it,  just a few top military advisors to help train the rebels, something that yesterday France seemed not to agree with it sounds clear enough, doesn’t it? It’s simply illegal to help rebels. Besides, it will not be helpful for the cause of peace according to Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, Libya’s foreign minister. Meanwhile, in support of Britain, or not to be outdone, France has since said it too is sending its military advisers to Libya. And now Italy says it will send fewer than ten military liaison officers into Libya. No military advisers from the USA. But even for bombing from on high in “protection” of Libyan citizens, it’s hard not to conclude that Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy and the rest of the coalition of the willing may be guilty of breaking international laws, or are they? Well, yes and no. It is a breach if any outside country or force intervenes in a civil war. The NATO/UN argument is that there is not a civil war in Libya; there is a popular uprising against a dictatorial government which has brutally retaliated against its people. The big fuss as the coalition of the willing sought UNSC (“legal”) approval regarding Libya, was limited to establishing a no-fly zone and protecting the population. The biggest fuss was on flummoxing the opposition by showing that it was all legal. Legal hangups or not, the main concern should be and should always have been victory. Victory is far from guaranteed. It might be worth a glance at two earlier conflicts which recently engaged the British government. Both of them victorious, neither unquestionably “legal”.

SIERRA LEONE : CIVIL WAR?

Libya is not Sierra Leone, where the Blair government intervened against brutal rebels in a civil war, and thus ended the bloodshed after 11 years of the world, the UN and the rest leaving them alone. Even though the military action had no UN mandate to intervene militarily, that intervention is seldom described as illegal. Yet it clearly was illegal, if outsiders are not permitted to intervene in a civil war. A short history: Tony Blair sent troops in to rescue British citizens from rebel attacks in 2000. He was then persuaded by his military chief on the ground that the rebels could be defeated as a useful side effect of the rescue. Blair agreed to this course of action. A few months later; end of story.

Wikipedia excerpt: “…by May 2000 the rebels were advancing upon Freetown once again.[8] The British intervened to save the flailing UN mission and the weak government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. With help from a renewed UN mandate and Guinean air support, the British Operation Palliser finally defeated the RUF. On 18 January 2002, President Kabbah declared the Sierra Leone Civil War officially over.”

Although there had been eight UN resolutions in 2000, three in 2001 and four in 2002, none of these permitted military intervention.

KOSOVO: CIVIL WAR? The NATO action in Kosovo lasted less than three months in 1999, after a year or more of fighting between factions in the former Yugoslavia. As with Sierra Leone the United Nations was a foot dragger in this “civil war”, preferring to let NATO take the initiative — and the stick. Apart from the civil war element the reasons for UN inaction (umpteen resolutions; none to intervene until after the NATO success) were, as they are today, to do with the ever-so-high-minded resistance to action by such as Russia and China. This intervention was six years before the General Assembly amendment which gave outside states/bodies the responsibility to protect. So Kosovo action, too, should have been illegal. Oddly enough, we seldom hear how legal/illegal that intervention was, perhaps because the victors there were the interventionists, more particularly that interventionist, Tony Blair. Are legalities written in stone? Again, that intervention was successful, so we seldom hear complaints about its legality or otherwise.

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  • morris wise

    No longer will Libya be ruled by a warlord, it will be a land of many cultures, each protected by a small militia. Tourists and investors will be welcome to visit this oasis, they will be free to enjoy the hotels and sunshine or stake a claim to its rich natural resources.