No-fly zone in Libya—did it prevent a massacre?

(Following is the text of an e-mail I sent to Avaaz.org today, commenting on their continuing to claim credit for having "prevented" a massacre of civilians in Benghazi in March. I also include the e-mail trail below.)

Dominick et al, I want to thank you for the e-mail below. While I disagreed with it intensely, I did appreciate it that Avaaz put an effort into explaining its positions, and that it was a thoughtful reply, and not a bunch of buzzwords/key messages.

However, a visit to your web-site reveals that Avaaz hasn’t given much thought to it since, despite many intervening events that by now should have given you much reason to reconsider. Consider these:


  • The allegation that Qaddafi’s forces were using “rape as a weapon of war” has now been thoroughly discredited. It could never have been true, and was obviously false from the beginning; however, a news source many of us used to trust—al-Jazeera—started the rumours, fanned the flames, and has since been exposed to have been acting as a tool of the Emir of Qatar (who, you should have noticed by now, is much enjoying his international prestige as one of the assassins of Qaddafi).
  • The allegation that Qaddafi’s air force was bombing civilians has now been shown to have been as false as the rape allegations.
  • The “no-fly zone” was clearly and obviously used by NATO as a fig leaf for acting as the rebels’ air force. NATO bombs killed many, many civilians, and prevented the Libyan government from defending itself from disparate groups of armed rabble and Islamists.
  • All calls for non-military solutions to the crisis, including yours, Qaddafi’s, and the African Union, were contemptuously rejected, in a way that should be familiar to all Westerners whose governments prefer bombs to diplomacy, with the US now joined loudly by Canada, the UK, France, Denmark, and several vicious, brutal middle east dictators.
  • The revolt in Libya was most decidedly not an element of the “Arab Spring.” While the demonstration of February 17th consisted of “demonstrators,” every action after was clearly part of an armed revolt. I’m with you if you’re trying to protect unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. But since at the time I wrote you the rebels had armed themselves, and had advanced almost all the way to Tripoli before being forced back by the Libyan military, it’s beyond me why you were still referring to them as “civilians.”
  • What do you have to say about Tawergha, and all the other incidents of brutality toward sub-Saharan Africans during and since the revolt?

I myself was initially fooled by the revolt, thinking the movements of Egypt and Tunisia had spilled over into Libya. But I soon changed my mind as events unfolded. An armed revolt is different from a peaceful movement to effect change, and it was clearly none of the West’s business. As we can now see in Syria, the West has now decided when and where governments can defend themselves from armed revolts. Bahrain yes, Libya no. Yemen yes, Syria no.

Is oil at the bottom of it? In Libya, you bet your ass. In Syria, yes as well, though the Iran/Iraq/Syria nexus is also involved.

Did NATO prevent a massacre? Well, we certainly know that NATO committed one. True, it wasn’t in Benghazi, but it was almost everywhere else. But while no massacre took place in Benghazi, we cannot possibly know that NATO prevented one, because it hadn’t happened yet. Our belief that it was prevented is based on our supposition that there would have been one. How we can say this I don’t know—yes, Qaddafi said he was going to be brutal, and go “house-to-house” in search of … armed rebels. But he also said if they laid down their arms they would not be harmed. Also, we know that in the other cities Libyan government forces re-captured, there were no massacres. (Misrata is a special case—it was never recaptured, so there were many casualties, as you would expect, but possibly not as many casualties as in Tawergha, not that we’ll ever be able to determine the numbers.)

And yet your web-site indicates that you’ve given the matter no thought since. I mean, it’s nice that you called for non-military means of putting pressure on Qaddafi, but that’s not what happened.

What happened was that NATO has bombed and broken another country, leaving it in rubble, and in the hands of disparate groups of armed militias, Islamists, and a powerless NTC (who, I might add, contained representatives of some of the human rights groups you were relying on for information in February/March).

It was not a mistake for Avaaz to have involved itself, and not a mistake for Avaaz to have called for what it was calling for, but it was a huge mistake for Avaaz to have condoned putting the “no-fly zone” into the hands of NATO. You should know that by now.

And you should stop taking credit on your web-site for “preventing a massacre of large numbers of civilians.”

I find it interesting that the photo that accompanies your “massacre prevented” page contains a rebel with the flag of the revolt standing on a pile of rubble. That’s more telling than anything you say on the page.

In order to learn from our mistakes, we must admit it when we make them.

Brian Robinson

(Following, for your reference, are the previous e-mails.)

From: Avaaz
Sent: March-10-11 5:00 PM

Subject: Re: Libya: No-Fly Zone—Not me, folks!

Dear Brian,

Thanks for writing in, and thanks for your concern. Sorry that you felt we got this wrong. We're doing our best, but we don't always get thing everything right, and people of good will with similar values can sometimes disagree.

Avaaz is people-powered. Our member community makes the calls. We use polls to gauge members' views; 84% of members supported this campaign, while 9% opposed it. Since launching it, we've found intense support for the campaign from around the world.

However, a number of members have written in with serious objections to this campaign. Here are the main issues that people have raised, and where we're coming from regarding them.

Would imposing a no-fly zone really be a Western military intervention motivated by oil?

If Western powers use the no-fly zone as a pretext for self-interested military action, Avaaz would be among the first groups to campaign against it--just as Avaaz has campaigned to end the Iraq conflict and ensure that Iraq's oil rights are reserved for the Iraqi people. The call for a no-fly zone originated from Libyans -- including the provisional opposition government, Libya's (defected) ambassador to the UN, protesters, and youth organizations. The same Libyan groups have strongly opposed any western military presence on Libyan soil. They clearly feel that a no-fly zone is not equivalent to or a step towards invasion. Avaaz staff are in close and constant contact with activists inside Libya and have been repeatedly asked to move forward on this campaign. Meanwhile, among governments, Gulf States have demanded the no-fly zone, and the US government appears deeply divided on the idea--which is why it's a key target of advocacy.

Would imposing a no-fly zone lead to a full-blown international war?

No-fly zones can mean a range of different things. Some analysts and military figures have argued that it would require a pre-emptive attack on Libya's anti-aircraft weapons. Others, however, contend that merely flying fighter planes over the rebel-controlled areas would ensure that Qaddafi wouldn't use his jets to attack eastern Libya, because he knows his air force is weaker than that of Egypt or NATO states. The best solution is the one that reduces civilian deaths the most with the least violence. Things might not turn out as expected, but while there are potential dangers to an international war, there are certain dangers to civilians if things continue without a no-fly zone.

Is Qaddafi really killing civilians with this air force?

Based on reports from our partners on the ground, from the Red Cross, and from a variety of local and international news reports, we believe Qaddafi's bombing runs are indeed killing civilians. Qaddafi's air power is a key advantage over those fighting to remove him: as long as he has control of the air, a civil war seems likely to continue for months or even longer, with disastrous consequences for civilians.

Wouldn't a UN resolution for a no-fly zone violate national sovereignty?

We believe that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians when national governments threaten their fundamental human rights. National sovereignty should not be a legitimate barrier to international action when crimes against humanity are being committed. If you strongly disagree, then you may find yourself at odds with other Avaaz campaigns as well.

All told, this was a difficult judgment call. Calling for any sort of military response always is. Avaaz members have been advocating for weeks for a full set of non-military options as well, including an asset freeze, targeted sanctions, and prosecutions of officials involved in the violent crackdown on demonstrators. But although those measures are moving forward, the death toll is rising. Again, thoughtful people disagree -- and we hope you'll stay with us, and will keep writing in and trying to help us get these questions right.

Respectfully and with appreciation, Dominick

On Tue, Mar 8, 2011 at 8:54 PM, Brian Robinson wrote:

No freaking way you're going to get me to endorse imperialist "humanitarianism." You ought to know by now that NATO is not in it for the "freedom" or "protection" of the Libyan people.

http://counterpunch.org/bricmont03082011.html

http://counterpunch.org/johnstone03072011.html

-->Brian Robinson

Brian Robinson
Canada
bbbrobin(at)rogers.com

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