Where Do NGOs Stand on Intervening in Libya?

By / 3.13.2011

One of the many tragedies of the Iraq War was that the Bush administration presented it as a humanitarian venture when in fact not a single established humanitarian organization supported the intervention. The International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, for instance, both argued that the War could not been as a humanitarian venture.

Again we are seeing calls for some sort of humanitarian intervention, in Libya this time. From my former colleague Job Henning to columnist Charles Krauthammer, the U.S. is being called upon to arm the rebels, establish a no-fly zone, or something in between.

Since the humanitarian argument was used so cynically in Iraq in 2003, it’s worth checking in with what the humanitarian groups are actually saying this time around. The results are not what one might think.

Let’s start with the most aggressive: The Genocide Intervention Network has been the lead group calling for the “[e]stablishment of a no-fly zone by willing countries, with the express aim of preventing continued operation of Libyan military aircraft if attacks against civilians continue.” GIN’s position might seem counterintuitive given that nobody claims genocide is taking place in Libya, but the organization’s goal is to stop genocides before they begin. Once the genocide begins, time is already lost.

Only slightly less interventionist is the International Crisis Group. Notably, it says that “forceful measures” – sanctioned by the UN Security Council and the Arab League and African Union—might become necessary to stop the “full-blown civil war.” The ICG’s position is very different from its position on Iraq, when the organization’s president said in March 2003 that the situation in Iraq did not merit an invasion. Still, the ICG thinks “nothing should be allowed to preempt or preclude the urgent search for a political solution” in Libya. At this time, “Western calls for military intervention of one kind or another are perilous and potentially counter-productive.”

And yet, it is significant that ICG’s former president Gareth Evans—who was president in 2003—wrote in the Financial Times that with regards to Libya “it is the responsibility of the international community to provide [basic security], if necessary–should peaceful means be inadequate–by taking timely and decisive collective action through the United Nations Security Council.” ICG’s relative hawkishness on the issue is important, both because it is highly respected and rarely insistent on military solutions. The left-wing Nation magazine has been surprised and troubled by the International Crisis Group’s positions, for instance.

Now to the firmly anti-US-intervention organizations: Amnesty International welcomed news reports in late February of the African Union’s plans to send a mission to Libya. No mention has been made of NATO, UN, or US no-fly zones, however. For its part, Human Rights Watch has called for the regime in Libya to allow relief aid in and refugees out (good luck with that!), but has conspicuously avoided advocating outside military intervention. Unlike other NGOs, HRW does take positions on wars, and so its silence essentially means it is stalwartly against military action.

The latest news is that aid groups are having trouble delivering supplies inside Libya, unsurprisingly. Perhaps if that keeps up, more humanitarian NGOs will call for intervention inside that country. Until then, the scorecard shows mixed enthusiasm for military action among the actual humanitarians.