Rights and responsibilities in a post-Qaddafi Libya

By: /
August 24, 2011
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Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

It’s become a common refrain in most commentary on the Libyan conflict: now that the rebels, (undoubtedly assisted by NATO’s firepower) are close to winning the war, attention must turn to ‘winning the peace’. Roland Paris will no doubt have much to say on this theme, having penned an influential book that studies a series of cases of post-war peace-building.

But beyond the question of what to do, and in what sequence, is the issue of who should do it. During the last six months, Western policy-makers have continually insisted that only Libyans have the right to decide upon their future, and that the role of outsiders is to support and assist, when invited. Respect for the long-standing principle of self-determination, along with the fear of being branded ‘imperialist’, has motivated this careful stance.

Undoubtedly there is also some pragmatism at work here. Reconstruction is not only messy, but expensive. And after struggling to finance the thousands of air sorties over Libya to disable Qaddafi’s military capability, NATO countries will quietly express relief that they can turn their scarce resources elsewhere. Already, negotiations are taking place between Libya’s Transitional National Council and the foreign powers that have supported it over the release of frozen Libyan assets. These assets will be critical to the work of reconstruction and national healing.

There is, however, another side to this pragmatism. To see it in action, witness the recent Chinese offers of help to rebuild war-torn Libya. They know all too well that there is much money to be made during the reconstruction and beyond – if firm ties can be established now with the rebels-turned rulers.

So what principles should guide this potential free-for-all in Libya? Do outsiders have any responsibilities to rebuild what they have helped to destroy? And what are the nature and limits of their right to play a role in post conflict reconstruction? As I’ve argued in a 2009 article in Ethics and International Affairs, a number of rationales for rebuilding have been forward by international actors over the past two decades. They can roughly be grouped into three types.

The first argument is that the act of using force – even in a supporting role – carries with it responsibilities of reconstruction. The logic here is causal. Appealing to former U.S. Secretary of State Colin’s Powell’s use of the Pottery Barn analogy (in relation to Iraq), ‘If you broke it, you own it’. Because military means have damaging and destabilizing effects on local people and institutions (even if they also have positive consequences, such as removing a tyrannical regime), there is a moral imperative upon those choosing to engage in the conflict to stay on and ensure that personal insecurity, political instability, and economic devastation are addressed. Interestingly, this notion of a ‘responsibility to rebuild’ has also been invoked by actors who were not parties to the original conflict (whether states or international institutions). The question here, of course, is what gives these actors the right, let alone the responsibility, to engage heavily in the post-war affairs of a sovereign state. The answers given frequently draw on arguments about historical or 'special' ties to the state in question, or expert capacity in ‘doing peace-building’. In the case of Libya, this might include a state like Saudi Arabia (influential in the Middle East), or Japan (which has contributed extensively to different UN peace-building ventures).

These arguments need to be interrogated carefully, to ensure that narrow economic and political interests are not hiding underneath moral claims to responsibility. Even if, for example, NATO countries have been complicit in the destruction, does not mean that they can or should take a guiding role in any political settlement. Moral philosophers have shown that backward-looking ideas of causal responsibility relate imperfectly to the forward-looking task of addressing a problem, since the actor involved in ‘creating the mess’ may not be viewed as a legitimate participant in rectifying the situation. Nor is it clear that any country in the international system has a particular ‘knack’ for peace-building. We should all be humbled by the expensive, drawn-out, and often over-stretched peace-building missions that have dotted the international landscape in the 1990s and 2000s.

A second rationale for reconstruction, forwarded at various times by Western states, is that war’s end represents a transformational moment for a society. If it can be seized, with outside help, democracy and human rights can be secured. This rationale, of course, rests on a deeper set of liberal beliefs that: a) democracy is a morally superior form of government; and b) democratic states by and large do not war with one another, and therefore the promotion of democracy is the best route to international stability. Both notions were most obviously at the heart of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’, but values projection has also informed both European and Canadian foreign policy (much as many Europeans and Canadians would like to deny this). While the promotion of particular values is ultimately matter of choice for these Western states - did we really have to go to war over Kosovo or Libya? - it is often framed in public discourse as a national obligation: a function of ‘who we are’.

Democracy promotion, particularly in the context of reconstruction, also has its perils. While international actors like to claim that they are only ‘assisting’, and that there is full ‘local ownership’ of the reconstruction, in practice that ownership in many cases amounts to an effort to persuade and ‘incentivize’ the leaders and populations of war-torn territories to accept international prescriptions for how to rebuild. More problematically, we have seen in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan how the presence of international personnel (no matter how good their intentions) can foster an unhealthy relationship of dependency and a stifling of local capacity. Ominous signs of this potential problem are evident in the paternalistic statements of some Westerners that the Libyan TNC appears chaotic and ill-prepared for governance.

An additional problem with reconstruction-as-democracy-promotion is that international supporters of local efforts, operating in the name of ‘universal’ values, will perceive any opposition to a particular reconstruction agenda as coming from so-called anti-democratic forces. This has the potential to stigmatize what might be legitimate opposition, and to misinterpret the complex politics that will accompany any period of transition.

The third rationale for reconstruction, and the one playing a particularly prominent role in the case of Libya, draws on hard-nosed conceptions of national interest. Societies devastated by war can morph into ‘failed states’, and, consequently, serve as the breeding ground for terrorism. This rationale is often part of a broader perspective on international affairs which divides the world into a ‘zone of peace’ (our cosy Western world) and a ‘zone of instability’ (which seems to have a fluid membership). So-called failed states are problematic not only because they destabilize their own regions, but because – as the events of September 11, 2001 demonstrated – they can foster the growth of movements with the capacity to inflict pain on the zone of peace.  What is notable about this rationale is that unlike the ‘responsibility to rebuild’, its focus is less on the vulnerable in war-torn societies, and more on the peace-builder’s own society.

Efforts to address the problem of ‘failed states’ form the core of most national security strategies in  Western states, including Canada. And one might reasonably argue that it is unrealistic to expect states to become involved in protracted reconstruction efforts purely out of a sense of duty to assist the vulnerable. But this self-regarding motive does have implications for the state being reconstructed. To begin, it subjects that state to changing national security priorities within Western states (something that Afghanistan experienced firsthand, when in 2001 Bush shifted attention and resources to Iraq). There is also the possibility that the standard against which post-conflict reconstruction is measured is lowered. In other words, the level of stability required to prevent a state from becoming a breeding ground for terrorism may not correspond to what would be required to provide for the basic security and needs of the population.

The degree to which these moral and political challenges will affect Libya remains to be seen. Perhaps the transition will be swift, and Libyans will keep outsiders at arm’s length. In terms of the reparation of physical damage, it may be that Libyan resources are sufficient to meet all the ‘bills’, and that outside financing is not required. Perhaps the experience in Iraq will make Western leaders more reticent to insist upon a particular approach to building democracy, and welcome whatever political solution emerges. It may be that the suggested emergence of al-Qaeda in Libya has been over-played, and that the security implications of the country’s transition will be limited in scope. And perhaps the temptation of outside actors to grab a piece of the economic action will be firmly and successfully managed by competent Libyan authorities, so that it is the Libyan people – rather than foreign investors – who reap the proceeds of (eventual) economic growth.

But if past experience is anything to go by, the reconstruction phase is rife with ambiguity and uncertainty that can be exploited by outside actors. This reality suggests a need to clarify who has the right or responsibility to rebuild, what constraints (if any) should be placed upon their activities, and how burdens might equitably shared. No, the work in Libya is not done. It is just beginning.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.