Opinion: It’s time for a no-fly zone

In 1984 a young aeronautical engineer called Al-Sadek Hamed Al-Shuwehdy,an opponent of Muammar Gaddafi, was hanged in a basketball stadium in Benghazi. As he hung from the rope dying, he was grabbed round his legs and dragged down until he stopped moving by a brutal young woman called Huda Ben Amer. Ben Amer was appointed Mayor of Benghazi, and went on to terrorise the people Benghazi for the decades since. She escaped the Benghazi uprising, and is waiting to return if the Libyan army retake control in the next few days.

Al-Sadek’s story matters, not just because of the horror of his death.

In the next few days Britain will have to decide whether to lead efforts to create a no-fly zone in Libya. No liberal can deny that the rebels are preferable to Gaddafi’s tyranny. But a few people are still questioning whether we have a right in international law to intervene if the UN Security Council refuses to authorise a no-fly zone.

In fact international law, as used in Kosovo, allows unilateral intervention if it is going to prevent an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. In Libya this week we can reasonably judge that there is an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. Thousands of people have already died – and with Gaddafi’s murderers like Huda Ben Amer waiting, we can be sure that thousands more will die if they win.

We need a no-fly zone as soon as possible – and as liberals we should be proud to support one.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • I would make three observations.

    1) Forget international law – it is a phantom that means nothing and is a 50 year failure. International law is what the beholder says it is. Who decided to outsource decisions on war to the UN, the least democratic body I can think of. And be in no doubt a no-fly zone is code for war.

    2) Whilst I can but respect your compassion and humanity, events in Libya are none of our business. Reducing this to, ‘the UN says so,’ reduces this to process. These are profoundly political questions and lawyers don’t have a monopoly on truth.

    3) Gaddafi may be setting himself up as the next monster, but we can’t bomb countries to freedom.

  • Alistair Rae 15th Mar '11 - 11:39am

    Notwithstanding the philosophical issues there is a very practical issue to think about. What’s the escalation path and the desired end state?

    Does the UK have the resources available to actually support the establishment of a no-fly zone?

    Does the UK have the appetite to cope with the realities. This would involve taking out the Libyan Air Defence infrastructure, essentially unprovoked attacks on radar sites, airfields and communication capabilities.

    So what happens then? Do we commit to replacing them afterwards, are we prepared to put boots on the ground to follow through on the intent?

  • Rob Blackie – Thank you for your reply.

    I’m afraid that the choice here really is pretty clear cut. Leaving aside Alistair Rae’s sensible comment I simply can not see the sort of demands from the Libyan on the street for foreign intevention. That’s the difference with your South Africa comparison.

    The Iraq comparison is unavoidable. I would have been opposed to intervention in Iraq even if WMD had been found. It simply was none of our business, and neither is Libya with or without the UN.

  • Genocide is not “none of our business”.

  • Without a UN resolution will this be an illegal act?

    There is almost a certainty that will mean invading another countries airspace, attacking air defences and people will die.
    But the question is who exactly is going do the flying and the killing, can the UK?
    The USA will make a subtle point by refusing to lead the way, cut your military budget but don’t expect the USA to do the dirty work and keep paying the cost, get your own aircraft and aircraft carriers into the area; oh I forgot we just sent ours to the scrap yard…

    After the slating Liberal Democrats gave Labour over Iraq being illegal, the venom that I have seen on LDV, playing the blame game, we are waiting to see the excuses but have no doubt of what will happen if you don’t get that UN resolution, sadly to will be your own fault.

  • While I’m yet to be persuaded that direct military intervention is desirable or possible, I’m appalled that someone who presumably supports a party for whom human rights is a key issue can describe what is going on in Libya as ‘none of our business’. Questioning the wisdom of military intervention does not mean washing your hands of the situation and saying ‘let them get on with it’.

  • Unfortunately Rob’s piece elides ‘something must be done’ with ‘that something must be a No Fly Zone’.

    I’m afraid a No Fly Zone is in my view a bit of a red herring.

    If your motivation is ‘humanitarian’ it will achieve little – Gaddafi can brutalise his people from the ground just as easily, move his troops around by sea, and probably defeat the rebellion without the need for fast jets.

    If your motivation is to ‘intervene in support of democracy’, a NFZ is a fairly lack lustre response (see above) unless it is a precussor to boots on the ground.

    Why Cameron got himself all hooked up on this issue I’ll never know.

    The only intervention that can effect the tactical situation on the ground would be to arm, train and provide logitical support for the rebel forces, to impose a ceasefire with international troops (much easier said than done when ‘international troops’ would be so obviously be bias to one side), or to interven militarily on the side of the rebels.

    None of these options will receive backing in the UN – the legal basis for intervention would therefore have to be through customary international law rather than through the UN Charter.

    None of these options will receive support from those countries who could actually do it with any hope of success.

    Basically the default position will be to complain loudly but to do little.

    A bloody nose for Cameron and Sarkozy, a broken dream for Libyans

  • Rob Blackie

    I think you may be pushing the interpretation of humanitarian intervention far beyond the intention to suit what you need, no that is not good enough I am afraid…

    Again I ask who is going to do the flying and killing.

  • With all this talk about ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Libya, I’m rather disgusted that there has not been one hint of side discussion about Bahrain and the fact that the majority shia pro-democracy demonstrators there might be in need of some help now that Saudi troops have turned-up.

    Oh I forgot that it’s slightly different – they’re the wrong sort of Muslims to warrant help. Plus Saudi and Bahrain are great customers to our arms industry.

    Excuse me being facetious but perhaps this goes some way to answering the question ie – we don’t actually have a moral high ground from which to swoop in and start bombing parts of the world where we actually choose to see the slaughter and bloodshed.

    What’s more, how does yet another armed intervention fit with our ‘cleaning-up Labour’s mess’ (financially and elsewhere) narrative?

    Anyway, I’m sure the Israelis will be onto this – they’ll get Obama to send in a battlegroup.

  • Frank: I’m dismayed at what’s happening in Bahrain, but we are not seeing the kind of slaughter there that we are seeing in Libya (I wish I was more sure that the situation in Bahrain wasn’t about to get much worse). I’d strongly support diplomatic/economic pressure to help resolve the situation there, but military action would surely cost more lives than it would save.

  • I have been worried for some time that the Libyans opposing Gadaffi as well as innocents would end up being slaughtered in tens of thousands.

    A No Fly Zone on its own isn’t enough – we would need to take out their command and control, air defence and their airbases. There is then the problem about helicopters and planes – should they be taken out on the ground.

    But even doing all that we still have the armoured divisions that can actually do more damage and kill more people than the planes. So do we take them out or order that they shouldn’t advance outwith specified limits.

    Then there is the slight problem that we don’t have the personnel and machinery to operate a No Fly Zone let alone expand it as touched on above.

    And then comes the biggest problem – Gadaffi won’t give up and probably wants a martyr’s death and you can be sure he will take plenty with him.

    It all c omes down to a gamble that with one decisive show of strength Gadaffiw will crumple and his support will immediately fade-away. But if that doesn’t happen we could be in a bloody quagmire yet again. We now know that Saudi has an appetite for war against unarmed Bahrainies so why don’t they operate the No Fly Zone or more if required.

    Probably they don’t want to see one of their own clique of disctators replaced by a Democratic government.

    Having listened to many LibDem attacks on the LP over Iraq I honestly don’t see how there is any lawful way in which a No Fly Zone can be justified using the LibDem Iraq arguments and definitions – I am not making any political attack on the LibDems here but just stating my opinion and I am trying to be objective.

    The problem with government is that you have to make decisions which are horrendous and often lead to soldiers coming home in body bags and a lot of civilians wiped-out as well. What we are about here is regime change pure and simple and it is not lawful to do this.

    No matter how lousy a ruler Gadaffi is he can quite genuinely point to an armed rebellion against the established regime in Libya as requiring the ‘proportionate’ response he is making. I just cannot see how that can be faulted in terms of international law. Plenty of other regimes are doing ezactly the same so why pick on Gadaffi he will say.

    Well I can say it has to do with oit – I often wondered if Blair had been honest and said he was invading Iraq to secure Britain’s oil just how many would have been out on demos against the war. People can be very very selfish.

    With a complex tribal system like Libya how can we really be sure who and what we are dealing with in terms of the opposition – are the Benghazi tribe any better that Gadaffi’s lot. Are any of the other tribes a better bet for democracy. Are the other tribes just waiting for Gadaffi and Benghazi to beleed each other dry and then they’llk take over.

    The problem with the latter scenario is that if we back Benghazi and destroy Gadaffi what do we do if the other tribes then attack – do we walk away or do we support Benghazi?

    I just have the horrible feeling like Iraq we don’t really know or undersand what is going own bebeath the surface in Libya and if we get it wrong we will require to pay a heavy price in dead soldiers. No matter what happens the Libyans have and will continue to pay that price.

  • I think we have to be very careful about trying to draw a distinction between Libya and Bahrain – why should those in Bahrain be any less deserving of democracy than the Libyans.

    They have risen and deaths are being reported so what’s the difference? In many ways its worse – we don’t have a rag-tag collection of Gadaffi hired mercenaries being brought in we have the professionally trained and equipped Saudi Army.

    But we all know what side our bread’s buttered on – we are paid for training the Saudis, we sell them their equipement and they provide us will oil and with the profits from the black gold they keep western economies afloat through their massive investments.

    But they are disctators just as much as Gadaffi is and there will be no talk of No Fly Zones to protect the Bahraini protesters no matter how many are killed.

  • @Ian Sanderson

    I am afraid I share your fears and I hope that widespread humanitarian efforts are going to be needed – the thought of huge refugee camps in Egypt is a worry as we know that they are the recruiting grounds of terrorists.

    It is also important that Libyans are accepted in other countries but I have got to be hard-headed here and look beyond immediate humanitarian selection processes – we have got to look beyond the present and educate a diverse but representative group capable of running a democratic post-Gadafi Libya and that includes enough bodies to form the nucleus of a new army.

  • Don’t want to create any confusion but first par which read: ‘I am afraid I share your fears and I hope that widespread humanitarian efforts are going to be needed’ should have read: ‘I am afraid I share your fears and I hope that widespread humanitarian efforts are going to be put in place quickly.’

  • Sorry Rob, but a no-fly zone will just make us sleepwalk into another Iraq. Our economy is weak, our forces overstretched (we are already committed to Afghanistan and Iraq) and underfunded (£38 billion overspend thanks to Labour) and we hav…e severe weaknesses in both capability and utility.
    I don’t dispute that Gaddafi should be gone, but I would rather the Arab League sort this out themselves. For example, Saudi Arabia is quite happy to get stuck into Bahrain and many Arab League members are not short of weapons, because we have supplied them!
    Keep hitting Gadaffi with sanctions, not with bombs, which is what you are calling for, bombing Libya. What happens next, “surgical” air-strikes against his ground troops, with the danger that civilians will be harmed as they have in so many battles before. Even the Libyan rebels don’t want us there. Look how they treated the SAS! They are rightly suspicious of our “help”. Already American has 4,000 personnel, including Marines waiting in Crete to get stuck in on the ground.
    Lib Dems were opposed to the war in Iraq and they should be opposed to a no-fly zone. Given massive human rights violations in Bahrain at the moment (barring of access to hospitals, making demonstrations illegal, attacking protestors and inviting a foreign army to quell rebellion), will Rob advocate action here as well?

  • @ Greg “Why Cameron got himself all hooked up on this issue I’ll never know.”
    One answer – Libya’s OIL!

    That aside – whilst I acknowledge that we, in the West, feel that we “cannot stand idly by on the blood of our neighbours” – there are certain practical issues which prevent us from going in all “gung ho” on this one.

    Firstly – have you not seen all the banners which the Libyans have been flying “West – keep out, we don’t want your interference/intervention” on the streets? Surely this ought to be sending us the message that they don’t want us there.

    Secondly – We are 20 years on from the first Iraq/Gulf war – although we got rid of the dictator, Saddam Hussein, which was the primary aim Iraq is still not a settled country. We are 10 years on from “intervening” in Afghanistan – and we are still there, still losing our service men and women to the enemy (whoever they now are).

    Where on earth are we to find the resources for going into Libya and setting up a No Fly Zone? All our troops are out in foreign fields already (mainly in the Middle East) – very few left in the UK to defend our shores, and now with the swingeing Defence cuts, scrapping of aircraft carriers and everything else which this government has already started (except for Trident of course), what are we left with to do this job?

    We cannot afford to set up a NFZ – we don’t have the resources or the troop-power because, believe me, it won’t stop there with a NFZ – there has to be follow-up – with peace-keeping forces, resettlement of the population and the establishment democratic régime. We only have to look again at Iraq and Afghanistan as the prime examples of this – it will be never-ending.

    Our men and women are already battle-weary and so are their families. However worthy a humanitarian cause we might consider this to be, who are we to commit our Armed Forces and our now-so-scarce resources to yet another Middle East conflict?

    Please – don’t commit us to yet another war – we don’t need it and cannot afford it. There are other ways in which we can give humanitarian aid, I suggest that we look at those other ways.

  • Omission – the establishment “of a” democratic régime

  • Furthermore – the UN is unlikely to sanction a NFZ. So – if we cannot “act unilaterally” on scrapping Trident and its successor because of the need to have the permission of other states, why on earth does our Government think it can act unilaterally on the establishment of a NFZ? Any answers on that one, please?

    Also – let us not be bamboozled into this by the US (from a distance – notice their silence on this one). If we do this, the implications are very far-reaching.

  • Rebekah –

    Oil is something that gets thrown around. And in truth it probably is in the calculation somewhere. Quite bluntly access to oil is not something that policy can be blind to in the real world. But if the west wants oil, surely Iraq proved that there are cheaper, easier ways of getting it. This cynical reductivism diminishes the rest of your thoughtful post.

    I’d agree with you that it is far from clear that intervention would have support amongst Libyans, thus the idea of intervention of any sort falls at the first. But I am less than convinced by your idea that this is a cost-benefit decision. Surely the availability of funding does not make the cause more or less worthy. As I said earlier, Iraq was wrong, and would have been wrong even if there were WMD because the presence of WMD would not have somehow, ‘legitimised,’ the disorder.

    If someone were to say to you that research into green technology was something that should be stopped as it is unaffordable would you regard that as OK? Cost is a factor, yes – but whether something is right or wrong does not vary with the price tag.

    What is going on in Libya is a civil conflict, one that is complex and shifting. It is none of our business to intervene, still less internationalise what is an internal matter. The West does not hold the solution to Libyan society’s problems.

  • @ Rebekah
    I meant why did Cameron get himself hooked up on the issue of No-Fly Zones when they are not an answer in themselves.

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