The Multilateralist

Is Libya a “humanitarian crisis”?

Most voices advocating intervention in Libya have argued the case on humanitarian grounds. The U.S. government reports that a humanitarian crisis is already underway in the country. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal insisted that the Obama administration stop the "slaughter" of Libya’s people and warned of a "bloodbath." Others, including British foreign minister William Hague, have ...

Most voices advocating intervention in Libya have argued the case on humanitarian grounds. The U.S. government reports that a humanitarian crisis is already underway in the country. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal insisted that the Obama administration stop the "slaughter" of Libya’s people and warned of a "bloodbath." Others, including British foreign minister William Hague, have said that a humanitarian crisis is imminent and must be prevented. The almost universal resort to the vocabulary of humanitarianism–rather than interest, strategy, politics, or ideology–is consistent with the way many non-Western conflicts have been viewed since the end of the Cold War. 

There are laudable and less laudable aspects of this habit. The humanitarian focus places emphasis where it ultimately should be: on individual human beings. Attention can bring resources, and those resources can save lives. But as a number of critics, notably David Rieff, have pointed out, the humanitarian prism also tends to blind people to the political and strategic aspects of a situation. Calling Libya a "humanitarian crisis" easily obscures the questions of who the relevant actors are, their relative merits and interests, and the ways in which intervention may or may not affect the situation on the ground. One can support humanitarian intervention without having to know much about the Libyan rebels, or Libya at all; all that’s required is compassion for fellow human beings.   

Given the ubiquity of the phrase, it’s notable how little discussion there has been of the actual scale of the killing. Most estimates of the death toll run between 1,000 and 3,000. There is no doubt that security forces killed several hundred in the early days of the crisis. However, recent reporting suggests relatively low casualties from combat, and what combat there is appears mostly to have occurred between armed groups.  If there have been large-scale attacks on civilians as the crisis has evolved, they have remained well hidden. The fighting and the broader political crisis have clearly prompted large population movements, which carry their own perils.  But is the suffering in Libya remotely comparable to that in other recent humanitarian crises?

Nobody has an incentive to be parsimonious in their phraseology. Politically, the drumbeat on the suffering in Libya helps to delegitimize the Gadaffi regime, which almost all major players now want to see gone. UN aid agencies are mounting a $160 million appeal for further funds based on the crisis. And after the last several  decade’s dramatic bloodletting in Rwanda, the Balkans, and Darfur, nobody wants to be caught minimizing what has happened. The Libyan regime has clearly committed serious crimes and no doubt is capable of much worse. If warning loudly about an impending human catastrophe can help avert one, why be picky about language?

The danger of thinking of the crisis almost exclusively in humanitarian terms is two-fold. First, this perspective could generate pressure for outside action that is ill-conveived and unsustainable. As the international experience in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 demonstrated, intervening to avert humanitarian crisis–but without a clear political or military goal–can be disastrous. Perversely, military action designed around humanitarian need can be less effective in addressing those needs than intervention designed to achieve a decisive military victory.  More broadly, a profligate use of the term "humanitarian crisis" may devalue the concept, making it hard for the public to distinguish between a situation in which hundreds of thousands are at risk and less grave, but still serious, episodes.

Most voices advocating intervention in Libya have argued the case on humanitarian grounds. The U.S. government reports that a humanitarian crisis is already underway in the country. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal insisted that the Obama administration stop the "slaughter" of Libya’s people and warned of a "bloodbath." Others, including British foreign minister William Hague, have said that a humanitarian crisis is imminent and must be prevented. The almost universal resort to the vocabulary of humanitarianism–rather than interest, strategy, politics, or ideology–is consistent with the way many non-Western conflicts have been viewed since the end of the Cold War. 

There are laudable and less laudable aspects of this habit. The humanitarian focus places emphasis where it ultimately should be: on individual human beings. Attention can bring resources, and those resources can save lives. But as a number of critics, notably David Rieff, have pointed out, the humanitarian prism also tends to blind people to the political and strategic aspects of a situation. Calling Libya a "humanitarian crisis" easily obscures the questions of who the relevant actors are, their relative merits and interests, and the ways in which intervention may or may not affect the situation on the ground. One can support humanitarian intervention without having to know much about the Libyan rebels, or Libya at all; all that’s required is compassion for fellow human beings.   

Given the ubiquity of the phrase, it’s notable how little discussion there has been of the actual scale of the killing. Most estimates of the death toll run between 1,000 and 3,000. There is no doubt that security forces killed several hundred in the early days of the crisis. However, recent reporting suggests relatively low casualties from combat, and what combat there is appears mostly to have occurred between armed groups.  If there have been large-scale attacks on civilians as the crisis has evolved, they have remained well hidden. The fighting and the broader political crisis have clearly prompted large population movements, which carry their own perils.  But is the suffering in Libya remotely comparable to that in other recent humanitarian crises?

Nobody has an incentive to be parsimonious in their phraseology. Politically, the drumbeat on the suffering in Libya helps to delegitimize the Gadaffi regime, which almost all major players now want to see gone. UN aid agencies are mounting a $160 million appeal for further funds based on the crisis. And after the last several  decade’s dramatic bloodletting in Rwanda, the Balkans, and Darfur, nobody wants to be caught minimizing what has happened. The Libyan regime has clearly committed serious crimes and no doubt is capable of much worse. If warning loudly about an impending human catastrophe can help avert one, why be picky about language?

The danger of thinking of the crisis almost exclusively in humanitarian terms is two-fold. First, this perspective could generate pressure for outside action that is ill-conveived and unsustainable. As the international experience in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 demonstrated, intervening to avert humanitarian crisis–but without a clear political or military goal–can be disastrous. Perversely, military action designed around humanitarian need can be less effective in addressing those needs than intervention designed to achieve a decisive military victory.  More broadly, a profligate use of the term "humanitarian crisis" may devalue the concept, making it hard for the public to distinguish between a situation in which hundreds of thousands are at risk and less grave, but still serious, episodes.

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
Tag: Libya

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