An Anti-imperialist Analysis of the 2011 Destruction of Libya

Valerie Reynoso | Geopolitics | Analysis | April 20th, 2019

The origins of the UN concept of "Responsibility to Protect" (RTP) was initially articulated by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who presented his annual report to the UN General Assembly in September 1999, urging Member States to collaborate in abiding by Charter principles and engaging in defense of human rights. In his 2000 Millennium Report, he stated "if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to a gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?" A year later, the Canadian government filed a report, "The Responsibility to Protect," through the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The RTP concept, which is partially derived from Francis Deng's concept of "State sovereignty as a responsibility," reassures that sovereignty is not only a matter of protection from external forces, but also emphasizes that nations ensure the welfare of their own populations, internally. Hence, as it goes, the prime responsibility for the protection of "the people" lies mainly with the State. In terms of geopolitics, according to the United Nations, "residual responsibility" also rests on the international community of states; and this clause may be "activated when a particular state is clearly either unwilling or unable to fulfill its responsibility to protect or is itself the actual perpetrator of crimes or atrocities." [1]

Clinton and Kosovo

Interestingly, the formation of the RTP concept has anti-imperialist roots, particularly in the crisis in Kosovo at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century. The NATO military intervention in Kosovo, which was accused by many of being a violation of the prohibition of the use of force, as well as the heinous acts committed in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s, resulted in the international community carefully discussing means to implement protections against human-rights violations. Despite NATO being an international organization, its actions in Kosovo were still perceived as violating Kosovar sovereignty and the "well bring" of Kosovar people. [2]

The NATO military intervention in Yugoslavia, which began on March 24th, 1999, lasted seventy-eight days and set a precedent by becoming the first occasion in which NATO decided to militarily intervene in a sovereign country without prior approval from the UN Security Council. The involvement of nineteen countries, led by the US, was spearheaded by the Clinton administration with the stated intention of "preventing a humanitarian disaster" and establishing a framework for Kosovo, which was the southern part of Yugoslavia under the Milosevic government. Despite these intentions, NATO's bombings of the Balkans caused more harm than good as these violations of international law resulted in the destruction of 25,000 homes, 300 miles of roads, and an estimate of 400 railways, etc. At least 5,000 people were killed in the bombings, with 12,500 more having been injured. The area was contaminated with depleted uranium, an internationally-outlawed chemical that is still to this day producing high rates of childhood cancer defects throughout the Balkans. [3] The accusation that NATO and its allies committed human rights violations was later confirmed and thus became a motivating factor in the creation of the RTP declaration, which sought to avoid such unilateral interventions in the future.

Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Libya

In 1969, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi led a military coup against King Idris in Libya. The coup overthrew the King and resulted in the establishment of the Jamahiriya government, which lasted nearly five decades. The results of the coup were far-reaching: it eliminated the Libyan monarchy, formed a new republic, set the foundation for an accelerated approach to Pan-Africanism, and established key alliances with the Soviet Union, Egypt, and Syria.

Under Gaddafi's rule, Libyan living standards consistently increased. Healthcare was universalized and available to all; the average life expectancy rose from 55 years in 1969 to 70 years in 2011; the average literacy rate peaked 91 percent, making it one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. Libya attained the highest Human Development Index score in 2010 within the entire African continent, demonstrating it had a high level of development in the country, as well as a comparatively low rate of malnourishment at 5 percent.

Libya also established one of the lowest poverty rates, which fell below 10 percent, not only Africa, but in the world. Libya was producing approximately 2 million barrels of oil per day under Gaddafi's leadership. Libya was also a champion of internationalism and sent military assistance to several countries and causes, including Ethiopia, Uganda, Grenada, and Nelson Mandela's Umkhonto we Sizwe. As an important gesture in establishing regional brotherhood, Gaddafi formally apologized for Arab enslavement of Africans in 2010, while he was chair of the African Union.

This all changed in 2011, when NATO decided to yet again militarily intervene in a sovereign country, ala Kosovo. Although, this time, the reasons were less clear. Internal uprisings against the Libyan Jamahiriya had commenced in 2011. In the West, these were quickly reported as "democratic revolts" against an "oppressive government with extreme poverty" - propaganda that has been accused of being rooted in orientalism and the financial interests of Western nations. These reports were followed with sensationalist personal attacks against Gaddafi, one of which claimed that he mass-distributed Viagra pills to his soldiers. Western media was flooded with anti-Gaddafi reports and imagery, calls for "assisting" the people of Libya, and cries for military intervention. Intervention ensued under the guise of RTP, a UN notion that encompassed a political dedication and obligation to struggle against and terminate the most severe forms of violence and persecution, as well as to diminish the gap between member states' pre-existing obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law and the realities of marginalized groups on the brink of genocide, war crimes, subject to ethnic cleansing and other human rights violations. This principle has recently been applied in the 2011 conflict in Libya, where this concept was used, with reference to UN-resolution 1973, to accept the usage of military force in which Libyan counterrevolutionary groups sought to overthrow Gaddafi.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a key role in helping align Western and Arab powers against the Gaddafi administration. Clinton had formally requested that the Arab states intervene in Libya and on March 12th, 2011. The Arab League, which was composed of 22 nations, satisfied this request by voting to ask for UN approval of a military no-fly zone over Libya. On March 13th, 2011, Clinton attended a meeting in Paris with foreign ministers from the Group of Eight countries, where she spoke with the Interim leader of Libya's Transitional National Council, Mahmoud Jibril, for the first time. She also privately met with diplomats from the Persian Gulf in order to determine how willing Arab powers would be to send warplanes to potentially enforce a no-fly zone. Former US President Obama had a conversation on the phone with Clinton by March 15th, 2011, which resulted in Obama siding with Clinton's advocacy for US intervention in Libya. On March 17th, 2011, UN-resolution 1973 was approved of with 10 votes, no objections and 5 abstentions, permitting the usage of all necessary measures with the exception of an occupation force, to protect Libyan citizens, enforce the arms embargo and a no-fly zone, and to reinforce the sanctions regime. In this resolution, the UN Security Council authorized intervention in Libya with "all necessary means," which is UN code for authorization of military force (Warrick, Joby).

The Imperialist Attack on Libya

On March 19th, 2011, at 5:45pm, exactly three hours before the official foreign intervention of Libya, four French Rafale jet fighters annihilated a column of tanks that were headed towards the city of Benghazi. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had wanted to launch a symbolic first strike, which was ideologically supported by Washington and increased French popular support for Sarkozy. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini played key roles in the provision of air bases as staging grounds for attacks. Numerous Arab states such as Qatar, Jordan, and the UAE also supplied warplanes and pilots to the imperialist project in order to demonstrate Arab support for military action against Libya (Warrick, Joby).

In reference to a NATO airstrike that was aimed at Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli that killed 3 journalists, Gaddafi said, "I tell the cowardly crusaders (NATO)-I live in a place where you can't get to and kill me, I live in the hearts of millions" (Hadid, Diaa). This NATO-lead intervention retracted Gaddafi's troops from Benghazi and also resulted in the brutal murder of Gaddafi, who was killed in cold blood by Western-backed proxies. According to some of the proxies present during his murder, his final words to his murderers were, "What did I do to you?" (Beaumont, Peter). Likewise, these Western-backed rebels were unable to sell oil nor tap into Gaddafi's overseas bank accounts and by July 2011, were lacking funds for weapons, food, and other supplies. Clinton succeeded in persuading former President Obama to grant full diplomatic recognition to the rebels, which allowed these Western proxies access to billions of dollars from Gaddafi's frozen accounts. Clinton also managed to convince 30 other Western and Arab governments to make the same commitment during a meeting on July 15, 2011, in Istanbul. Tripoli officially collapsed in August 2011 (Warrick, Joby).

The usage of UN resolution-1973 and "Responsibility to Protect" in the Libyan conflict of 2011 was imperialist in that it was used to eradicate a government that had actually improved living conditions in Libya. This intervention served Western-capitalist interests as opposed to being for the sake of humanitarianism, which is ironic given the rampant human rights abuses, bombings, destruction, pillaging, violation of Libyan sovereignty, deaths and rapes that occurred during and after the NATO-led intervention of Libya, including the savage assassination of the nation's former leader Gaddafi, which has even concerned human rights officials from Amnesty International and the UN. Imperialist interventions cannot be justified under guise of humanitarianism when this colonial project in itself and in how it is implemented is a violation of all human rights. These UN laws, which were implemented via consideration of Western propaganda fabricated against Gaddafi, had no actual basis of evidence. This is a contradiction, especially when taking into account its origins in the period of the NATO bombing of Kosovo, which the "Responsibility to Protect" was used to condemn.

The Aftermath

According to US government documents leaked by Wikileaks, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron met with the leaders of the new government of Libya under the National Transitional Council (NTC) in September 2011 in Tripoli. Sarkozy and Cameron allegedly wanted to encourage the NTC leaders to reward French and British early support for the coup against the Gaddafi administration, through contracts that would favor French and British energy companies that aspired to play a key role in the Libyan oil industry. It was also reported that the government of France was executing a program of private and public diplomacy in hopes of persuading the NTC to reserve up to 35% of Libyan oil related industry for French firms, specifically the French energy company TOTAL (WikiLeaks, "FRANCE, UK, ET AL, JOCKEYING IN LIBYA/OIL"). Given all this, it is evident that Western powers had aligned in order to enforce an imperialist order on Libya and capitalize off of its resources via an interim government that satisfies their interests.

In modern-day Libya, Libyans fleeing catastrophe in their home country regularly cross the Libyan border to enter Europe and the Libyan coastguard has taken severe measures in handling this migration crisis. As a result, many of these migrants have been held captive, enslaved and sold for as little as $400 to do arduous work with lethal effects on their bodies and well-being. Survivors of the Libyan slave trade provided detail at the United Nations on their traumatic experiences. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated that the slave trade in Libya has become so normalized that traffickings of humans for purchase even happen publicly (Warrick, Joby).

Ultimately, the issues that currently plague Libya cannot be discussed without taking into account the dire impact that NATO, France, the UK, the US, Italy, and other Western-aligned powers had in the 2011 intervention and bloody ousting of Gaddafi. This foreign-backed coup, acted out for the sole purpose of fueling western capitalism, was carried forward on a precedent set in Kosovo many years earlier. Other such coups and interventions have continued under this guise of humanitarianism - UN concepts and regulations that should not be utilized for imperialist measures, especially when said actions ironically violate the international laws and human rights they claim to follow.


[1] United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, "Responsibility to Protect."

[2] Ibid.

[3] TeleSUR , US, NATO Lie to Justify Genocide and Destruction in Yugoslavia


Beaumont, Peter. Gaddafi's Last Words as He Begged for Mercy: 'What Did I Do to You?' . The Guardian, 22 Oct. 2011.

"FRANCE, UK, ET AL, JOCKEYING IN LIBYA/OIL." Hillary Clinton Email Archive, WikiLeaks.

Hadid, Diaa. Gaddafi Taunt: I'm 'in a Place Where You Can't Get Me'. Associated Press, 14 May 2011.

"Responsibility to Protect." United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect , United Nations.

Travail, Jus. Libya: Regime Change Disguised as a People's Revolution. TeleSUR, 22 May 2017.

US, NATO Lie to Justify Genocide and Destruction in Yugoslavia . TeleSUR, 23 Mar. 2016.

Warrick, Joby.

Hillary's War: How Conviction Replaced Skepticism in Libya Intervention

. The Washington Post, 30 Oct. 2011.