The World Order in Flames
For the past several weeks, the supposed struggle for human rights and liberation in Libya has been so wrecked by an obviously corrupt European-led military intervention that one might well just stand back and watch it—like a house so engulfed in flames that one can only watch it burn. But with the killing of Muammar Qaddafy’s grandchildren by a NATO-organised air strike, those flames are rising so high that they are threatening Mount Olympus – the rarefied realm of the UN world system. The rumbling protests by an informed world public about all this, like those regarding illegalities in Iraq, do not suffice in this case. The lethal strike on Qaddafy’s family’s home emblematically contravenes the UN system of international law and world order so baldly that concerted international action must now be organised. For the fact is that the present situation of an organised European-led military attack on a sovereign state, with the open goal of regime change, is shaking the foundations of the world order that protects us all.
Calling for urgent action in Libya does not rest on any illusion that the UN legal order isn’t already a seriously cracked vessel. The illegal invasion of Iraq, on bogus pretexts of transparently cooked evidence, is an obvious recent predecessor, but those of us with longer memories will remember the bogus pretext in Vietnam (the phony Gulf of Tonkin incident) and the myriad of fake excuses for military interventions, proxy takeovers and subversions of the less powerful by the more powerful throughout the Cold War. All these played out in the post-World War II system of rules and norms created by the UN Charter and UN institutions. Hence, on one level, what we are witnessing in Libya rings of the same old ugly behaviour, which was also often defended on grounds of protecting people from the ravages of a bad (socialist or capitalist) government. In this reading, the only difference now is that the architects of this farce, being cold-warrior generation folks, haven’t quite caught up with the implications created for their countries’ foreign policies by the Internet and cell phone networks like Twitter. The world public has become a watchdog force in the twenty-first century and state leaders have yet to catch up with what this means for scandal, delegitimacy and the progressive erosion of hitherto incontestable Western hegemony.
But in at least two ways, the NATO action in Libya differs profoundly and even paradigmatically from those older interventions. First, the great majority of those earlier interventions were organised by one great power or the other. This one has been organised clearly and overtly through the UN system itself. We are not speaking here of proxy agendas, such as UNSC Resolution 1701, which was obviously designed to assist Israel in suppressing Hizbullah. Here, a Security Council resolution authorising force on the only legal basis that could be found—protection of civilians—has been used as a platform for a Western-dominated military aggression with the open goal of regime change. Second, here the Western goal of assassinating a head of state is not being organised through the old cloak-and-dagger methods of suborned lieutenants, exploding cigars, poisons dropped into ears and the like. It is being conducted openly over the skies of Libya by Western battleships and jets. In other words, the military iron fist embedded in Section 7 of the UN’s rules regarding collective security, hitherto carefully confined by prohibitions on aggression of any kind, has been abruptly converted to the overthrow of a member state government. (It should be especially alarming to human rights NGOs and activists that the historic advancement of human rights, the great achievement since World War II, is being formally co-opted and distorted to advance naked military aggression.) Both aspects strike at the whole UN system. They even signal the advent of a new system that, under the mantle of the former system, actually shatters it.
Comparing the slippery terms of Resolution 1973 and the uses to which it has been put allows us to spot this manoeuvre. First, NATO action has stretched ‘the protection of civilians’ to the deliberate murder of civilians. Nothing in 1973 can be construed to authorise this behaviour. Second, these murders have further clarified beyond any facile argument—i.e., beyond all claims about strategic command sites, as regarding the earlier strike on Qaddafy’s house—that the entire NATO military operation in Libya is designed to achieve regime change. Of course, this has been clear in the rhetoric of Hillary Clinton, Cameron, and Sarkozy for some time, but at least they had the grace to flip-flop around the rhetorical plain regarding the ostensibly humanitarian goals of the UN/NATO mission. These diplomats did this for one obvious reason: the deliberate military overthrow through UN-sponsored action of a state government that has not breached the Charter’s prohibition on aggression is wildly illegal in the UN system. (As Mark Twain once observed, it’s good when governments lie about what they are doing because at least it shows they know they are doing something wrong.) Yet with this strike, even this floppy footwork has become unworkable.
Third, although it’s outside the UN rules, Western claims that intervention enjoyed unified Arab and African pre-approval makes mockery of these blocs’ putative regional (racial/ethnic) authority. No one in the servile Arab League anticipated such an action, nor did anyone in the waffling African Union. Dithering and confused about this rampant aggression by the Global North, member states in those regional blocs may now struggle to formulate lip-service protests that do not imperil their all-important trade and aid agreements with the West. But they must be gleaning that the world system itself is now smoking and the entire framework of assumptions in which they have so painfully negotiated their multiple alliances and agreements is wobbling on damaged stilts. And they must now be hunkered down in backrooms planning their accelerated rush to China.
It’s not irrelevant to world order, either, that this strike killed children. This outrage, too, is of course far from new. At the level of Western state security planning, a few extra deaths of darker-skinned people in desert or jungle capitals, particularly of anonymous children, is an ordinary price to pay for achieving strategic security goals. Public shock at the unnecessary deaths of innocents is recognised by war-room strategists to risk political problems, but ultimately such protests are derided as the naïve stuff of gooey-hearted liberals who don’t understand how the world works. Hence using an unmanned drone to bomb a car that is (maybe, hopefully) carrying a terrorist as well as the ten folks carrying groceries who just happen to be passing by—an action appalling, unimaginable and politically impossible in Omaha or Brighton or Tuscany or Strasbourg—is simply realist pragmatic exigency in Afghanistan or Gaza and not a depraved indifference to human life. But of course, the natives don’t see it that way, and neither do those of us whose world view is not entirely bottled into war-on-terror vintages. Symbolically, therefore, these deaths crystallise both the racism and the rogue behaviour of the Western alliance.
Moral opprobrium is here not the only problem, however. Rampant violations of the UN Charter may be piffle to Republicans and tea-party types and neo-colonial French strategists who imagine a stable Francophile North Africa dawning from all this mess. But it rattles the system for all the rest of us. Although obviously weak and sometimes marginalised by real politik, at least international law provides protection, tools and vision for people for long-haul struggles toward a better world. Like domestic laws prohibiting racial discrimination, international human rights law allows us to struggle for ideals that propose our collective capacity to create a less unequal and more just world order. International law about relations among states, which prohibits aggression and spells out careful rules for collective security, is the essential framework which prevents regional conflagrations and therefore on which those struggles necessarily depends. Where that same framework is being openly twisted to wreck the very order it was designed to preserve and protect, we are greatly threatened.
The question is what to do about it. We often feel overwhelmed when Titans clash on this scale and it is difficult to find a voice that will make a difference. Yet this time may be one of the few when international lawyers can truly make a difference. If the General Assembly stands up and challenges those powers who are savaging the world’s rules, on the basis of those rules and in the very forums established to protect those rules, then the rogue elements must either admit the system’s obsolescence and cast it into the void or back down. I strongly suspect, knowing the consequences, they will back down, because they know the consequences of the void. But that case must be made, and quickly.