The effects of the NATO intervention are still being felt by ordinary Libyans today, through the devastation of the country’s healthcare and infrastructure


“Secretary General of the WHO states that “Conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic present a significant threat to life in Libya. The health and safety of the country’s entire population are at risk.”

Libya has been ravaged by war since the Arab Spring uprising of 2011, the most recent offensive – Haftar’s 2019 attack on Tripoli – killed over 1,000 people after just three months and continues to this day. Throughout the country there remain deep-rooted tribal tensions and conflicts. There are two competing governments, neither of which have control over the country. All of this has been enabled by the reckless intervention of NATO in 2011.

NATO justified its intervention on humanitarian grounds, and claimed that the no-fly zone it introduced had international support, as it was backed by a UN Security Council resolution. Of course, they only had support for the implementation of a no-fly zone to protect civilians, not for the regime change campaign they led. The belief that Gaddafi’s ineffective forces were going to cause a ‘bloody massacre’ in Benghazi, as David Cameron put it, was unfounded.

The effects of the assassination of Gaddafi and the resulting instability are still being felt by ordinary Libyans today, not only through the number of killed and injured civilians, but also through the lack of law and order and devastation of the country’s healthcare and infrastructure.

As a direct result of the chaos caused by the NATO intervention and the pouring of arms into Libya, supplying both sides with weapons, Haftar’s army has been able to take control of a vast area of land. People living in areas under Haftar’s control have seen no improvement to their lives.

The spread of coronavirus presents yet another risk to millions of Libyans. Currently there are 65 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Libya, however the real number of cases is likely to be much greater. As is probable in Yemen and other war-torn countries true numbers are unknown due to the lack of testing. There are only two testing laboratories in Libya, one in Tripoli and the other in Benghazi.

Libya’s healthcare system is barely able to cope in ‘normal’ times, but faced with a highly infectious novel disease, such as COVID-19, it is clear millions could die. Many healthcare facilities have been bombed and those which remain intact have to deal with casualties from the fighting and airstrikes. The WHO representative in Libya has said “Libya’s health system is overwhelmed as a result of ongoing conflict”.

A joint statement by the UNHCR high commissioner and Secretary General of the WHO, among others, said that “Conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic present a significant threat to life in Libya. The health and safety of the country’s entire population are at risk.” The statement continued, saying “The international community must not turn a blind eye to the conflict in Libya and its catastrophic effect on civilians, including migrants and refugees, across the country.”

As with most countries in conflict, the warring parties have not taken up UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call for a ceasefire. Initially, both sides announced a humanitarian ceasefire but it lasted just 24 hours before fighting resumed again even more intensely. The Ramadan ceasefire will end next Monday and fighting is likely to resume as destructively as before.

A peace conference held in Berlin in January this year called for a ceasefire and for countries to obey the arms embargo which has been violated consistently throughout the conflict. It also laid out a 55-point road map for ending the war. However, it has largely failed to make any significant difference.

As a result of the continuation of the arms trade with Libya, a UN mine expert stated in February that the country has the largest uncontrolled ammunition stockpile in the world, with between 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes. UN official Yacoub El Hillo commented that Libya “is also the largest theatre for drone technology”, adding “everyone has something flying in the Libyan sky, it seems.”

It is clear there is no intent from the international community, or indeed Western countries, to help ease the fighting and end the conflict in Libya, despite the grave threat coronavirus presents to a population where 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and over 200,000 are displaced.

To make matters worse the West is split over which of the warring sides to support: the UN recognises Prime Minister al-Sarraj’s GNA as the Libyan government, and although the US supported the creation of the GNA, Donald Trump has praised Haftar’s “role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s resources”. Italy also supported the GNA but wants to prevent migrants leaving Libya and trying to reach Italy, which would partly require an end to the war. France has offered diplomatic support to Haftar, through blocking an EU statement calling on Haftar to end his Tripoli offensive. There are concerns France may be providing military assistance in support of Haftar. The UK has largely remained silent on the issue, possibly as a consequence of its previous disastrous intervention.

As a key participant in the intervention of nine years ago, the UK government must now act on its support for the global ceasefire, voiced by Dominic Raab at the start of April, which it has so far failed to do. It is imperative that a renewed effort be made to implement the measures agreed at the Berlin conference in January, and in particular there must be an end to arms flowing into Libya.

Tags: libya

21 May 2020

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