Collective punishment against the people of Libya

Recent evidence suggests that the UN sanctions regime against Libya is hindering the ability of the Gaddafi regime to import necessary humanitarian goods such as food and medicine in addition to the fuel necessary for running basic utilities. There are also reports that the NATO alliance has bombed a food warehouse, a clinic and water systems. These developments come months after one high ranking military officer in the campaign called for “up[ping] the ante” on Gaddafi by targeting more of Libya’s infrastructure. It is worth noting that despite the often stated humanitarian intentions, there is a long precedent of the “international community” utilizing collective punishment against civilian populations who are perceived as supporting targeted regimes.

According to a UN assembled fact-finding team, the capital city of Tripoli contained “pockets of vulnerability where people need urgent humanitarian assistance” (UN OCHA, 25 Jul. 2011). Medical goods such as vaccines are running perilously low and food prices are amidst concern about the “unsustainable food supply chain for the public distribution systems, especially as Ramadan approaches and the conflict persists.” Shortages of fuel have created long lines at gas stations and even shut some down as “Libyan oil experts warned that fuel stocks could run out in two weeks.” The cost of public transportation has tripled, thus causing hardship among those who depend on it for access to basic services such as medical care. Residents of Tripoli are also going through significant cuts in their electricity. While there is still access to potable water, the precariousness of the situation described makes one wonder how much longer even this provision will last.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the UN was considering easing the sanctions against the Libyan government in order to allow the purchase of food and medicine with government assets.

Although some essential goods could be imported under the current sanctions regime, they cannot be paid for because Libyan assets abroad are frozen and foreign banks are refusing to do business with Libyan entities. Diplomats said Tripoli’s current quarterly order for vaccines is being held up because Dutch bank ABN-AMRO will not accept a Bank of Libya credit note, for fear of running foul of sanctions or risking a public backlash. Aside from emergency supplies imported by the UN and non-governmental groups, the last major delivery of medicines to Libya was in January (AFP, 8 Jul. 2011).

Prior to the 2011 unrest the government of Libya spent around $2 billion a year on medicine. The sanctions are undoubtedly wrecking havoc on Libya’s health care system. As the AFP notes: “aside from emergency supplies imported by the UN and non-governmental groups, the last major delivery of medicines to Libya was in January.”

Of particular concern is the deterioration of the Great Manmade River (more background info here), a massive irrigation project that supplies the country with 70% if its water needs. According to the AFP:

[The Great Manmade River] could be crippled by the lack of spare parts and chemicals. So far UN agencies have supplied some basic components, but officials said the state-of-the-art facility is struggling to keep reservoirs at a level that can provide a sustainable supply. If the project were to fail, agencies fear a massive humanitarian emergency.

There is much reason to suspect that the collective punishment of the Libyans who remain under Gaddafi’s control is an intentional strategy. For starters, there is a clear precedent for such tactics.  As I have written previously:

The US military and diplomatic establishment understands that pressuring civilians is a common tactic to force capitulation. Whether a war is fought against a sovereign nation-state or an armed insurgency, civilian populations living under the control of enemy forces are commonly viewed as either potential fighters or passive supporters of belligerency.
The most obvious example of this would be the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent UN sanctions regime against Iraq. During the initial conflict in 1991, the US military destroyed Iraq’s electric, industrial, and transit capabilities to the point that a UN fact-finding mission declared that:

Nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation which has now befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology.

An article in the Washington Post at the time made it clear that the US fully intended to inflict suffering on Iraqi civilians. It quoted a senior Air Force officer justifying this by suggesting that Iraqi civilians bore some responsibility for Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait: “The definition of innocents gets to be a little bit unclear. They do live there, and ultimately the people have some control over what goes on in their country.”

Today, we have a more recent example of such sentiment being expressed by military brass:

Senior officers who served in NATO’s previous air war, fought in 1999 to protect the population of Kosovo from Serbian forces, said the campaign over Libya drew on lessons learned then. Gen. John P. Jumper, who commanded United States Air Force units in Europe during the Kosovo campaign, recalled that allied “air power was getting its paper graded on the number of tanks killed” — even though taking out armored vehicles one by one was never going to halt “ethnic cleansing.”

So NATO began to hit high-profile institutional targets in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, instead of forces in the field. Although they were legitimate military targets, General Jumper said, destroying them also had the effect of undermining popular support for the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

“It was when we went in and began to disturb important and symbolic sites in Belgrade, and began to bring to a halt the middle-class life in Belgrade, that Milosevic’s own people began to turn on him,” General Jumper said (NY Times, 26 Apr. 2011).

In mid-May, UK Armed Forces chief Gen. Sir David Richards said in an interview that:

“The military campaign to date has been a significant success for Nato and our Arab allies, but we need to do more. If we do not up the ante now there is a risk that the conflict could result in Gaddafi clinging to power. […] At present Nato is not attacking infrastructure targets in Libya. But if we want to increase the pressure on Gaddafi’s regime then we need to give serious consideration to increasing the range of targets we can hit” (Sunday Telegraph, 14 May 2011).

There have been sporadic reports of NATO bombing civilian infrastructure. In late April there were assertions from Libyan media outlets that nine people were killed in the bombing of Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte. Among the dead were “employees of the state water utility who were working during the attack” (Reuters, 22 Apr. 2011). According to a World Socialist Web Site (25 Apr. 2011) article from the same time period: “the Libyan news agency reported […] that NATO aircraft bombed water supply and sewage systems in the Gaddafi-held towns of al-Khums and Sirte.” Just this past week, Libyan officials accused NATO of bombing a food warehouse and medical clinic in Zlitan, a town east of Tripoli (IPS/Al-Jazeera, 26 Jul. 2011).

According to the CIA World Factbook, Libya had the highest life expectancy in continental Africa at the beginning of 2011. Despite the corruption, nepotism and forays into neo-liberalism the Gaddafi regime has engaged in as of late, his government’s role in utilizing its massive oil wealth for the good of his people cannot be doubted. That, in addition to his “resource nationalism,” is why the West always found him so threatening. Any oil profit spent on developing third world infrastructure and enriching the lives of third world inhabitants is considered wasteful by the current global order.


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