A Critic Gets it Wrong on Amnesty International and Libya

libya protests

Libyan protesters in Benghazi in 2011 ©Sniperphoto Agency/Demotix

In an article published by The Huffington Post and Counterpunch, author Dan Kovalik misrepresents Amnesty International’s position regarding Libya and the 2011 NATO air strikes campaign.

Without offering any supporting evidence, Kovalik falsely claims in the article “Libya and the West’s Human Rights Hypocrisy” that Amnesty International “believed NATO military action would bring about the flourishing of human rights in Libya.”   Amnesty International never made such an assertion, nor did we take a position in support of NATO airstrikes.

Amnesty International generally takes no position on the use of armed force or on military interventions in armed conflict, other than to demand that all parties respect international human rights and humanitarian law.  We are consistent in our call that all governments respect human rights, no matter what the type or form of government is.

The claim that Amnesty International took a position of supporting NATO military action is patently false.

The conflict that ultimately led to the fall of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s government began with anti-government demonstrations in Benghazi on February 15, 2011.  As described in our 2012 human rights report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, “the protests mushroomed and spread across Libya as government forces resorted to lethal and other excessive force to try and contain them.”

Following Colonel al-Gaddafi’s threat to “cleanse Libya house by house,” Amnesty International recommended in a public statement on February 23, 2011 that the United Nations should do the following:

  • Enact an arms embargo on Libya to prevent transfer of equipment and personnel.
  • Freeze the assets of  Colonel al-Gaddafi and his senior military and security advisers.
  • Make a clear statement that crimes under international law in Libya will be investigated and punished.
  • Suspend Libya from the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council.
  • Make a fact-finding mission to Libya to assess human rights abuses and whether a referral to the International Criminal Court is warranted.

As one can see from the above list, the claim that Amnesty International took a position of supporting NATO military action is patently false.

We also urged the African Union and member states to take the following steps:

  • Immediately investigate reports that armed elements are being transported from African countries to Libya, act to secure the land borders into Libya, and monitor suspicious flights.

Finally, we called on Libya and neighboring countries to facilitate the safe departure of those who wish to leave Libya.

Kovalick’s article also fundamentally misrepresents Amnesty International’s description of the conflict. The article states wrongly: “AI’s claim that the fall [of the Gaddafi government] resulted from an ‘internal conflict’ is of course an outrageous misrepresentation of reality.”

Unfortunately, this itself is a misrepresentation of how Amnesty International has described the conflict – which admittedly, does get complicated.  As we wrote in our March 21, 2011, document “Q&A: Human rights and war in Libya:”

There is now an international armed conflict in Libya between coalition forces and the Libyan government.  There is also a non-international armed conflict between the Libyan government and rebel fighters. It is critical that all parties involved in the conflict respect fully international humanitarian law (the laws of war) and applicable human rights law.

Why did we make this seemingly arcane distinction between simultaneous “international” and “non-international” armed conflicts in Libya?  Because by doing so, Amnesty International invoked the obligations that each of the warring parties in Libya at the time faced under the Geneva Conventions.

The Geneva Conventions establish specific rules of war for international conflicts where at least one of the parties to the conflict (a nation) is a signatory to the Conventions.  The Geneva Conventions also have specific rules of war for armed conflicts between multiple parties within the territory of a nation that has signed the Conventions.

By describing both aspects of the conflict in Libya – the “international” and the “non-international,” Amnesty International was calling on parties both inside and outside Libya to adhere to the laws of war.  In other words, no matter who you are – government soldier, NATO military officer, or member of an armed group – there are specific rules of war to be followed.

As we stated, “All parties must refrain from targeting civilians or civilian objects. They should strictly adhere to the definition of military targets and the prohibition of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.”

Libya - The Forgotten Victims of NATO Strikes

Mohammed al-Morabit, 6, killed when his home in Zitan was struck by NATO on 4 August 2011.

We specifically held NATO accountable to these rules of war in our March 19, 2012 report, “Libya:  The Forgotten Victims of NATO Strikes.”  In our summary, we stated:

Although NATO appears to have made significant efforts to minimize the risk of causing civilian casualties, scores of Libyan civilians were killed and many more injured. Amnesty International is concerned that no information has been made available to the families of civilians killed and those injured in NATO strikes about any investigations which may have been carried out into the incidents which resulted in death and injury.

I also wrote about these matters in my own blog on the topic, “Will NATO Talk to Civilian Victims of Its Airstrikes in Libya?

In the aftermath of the NATO military campaign in Libya, a certain kind of triumphalism can be heard in the statements of NATO officials.   There is no doubt that the government of Libya’s former dictator, Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, engaged in significant human rights violations against Libyan society.

But four months after the NATO military campaign, Libya still faces massive human rights challenges … Indeed, NATO itself has not fulfilled its responsibility to the survivors of the conflict.  In our latest report, Amnesty International highlights the continued suffering of civilian victims of NATO airstrikes in Libya.

Effective human rights advocacy requires holding all parties to conflict responsible for their actions.  This means focusing on the conduct of NATO, armed militias, and the prior government of al-Gaddafi.  Today, it also means addressing the major human rights issues at play.  There are hundreds of armed militias committing abuses with impunity, as well as a new Libyan government, unable and at times unwilling to rein them in.  These are not easy problems to solve.  But holding all parties accountable to the same human rights standards is a good place to start.

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7 thoughts on “A Critic Gets it Wrong on Amnesty International and Libya

  1. The truth is, as I argued in my original piece, that AI pushed for the internationalization of the conflict in Libya based upon false information. To wit, in the February, 2011 release you cite above, AI pushed for Security Council action (which certainly could and eventually did include military intervention) as well as possible referral to the ICC (which, in relation to a sitting head of state like Qaddafi, would have required armed invasion to perfect) based upon the false claim that Libya was bringing in foreign mercenaries from Africa to fight. You do not, and cannot, refute this in this blog. The pushing of such bad information not only led to the NATO intervention which has devastated Libya, it also directly led to violent reprisals by the rebels and the current Libyan government against black Libyans. And, AI has not called for Security Council action against those types of crimes, against the current siege against Bani Walid, or against NATO's crimes. In the end, AI has not been even-handed about Libya, and generally is not. AI tends to push Security Council action, which AI knows can and will likely lead to armed intervention, when such intervention aligns with Western interests. The same can be said of its calls for referrals to the ICC which U.S. leaders, of course, cannot be tried by. This is not a coincidence. Indeed, one need look no further than AI USA's current Executive Director, Suzanne Nossel, who openly advocated for "soft power" projection by the U.S. when she served as Assistant Secretary for International Organizations at the U.S. Department. AI must come to grips with the fact that its lack of even-handedness in such matters has undermined its credibility and is undermining the very cause of human rights it claims to defend.

  2. In this blog, AI fails to rebut key arguments in my article. Thus, it does not, and cannot rebut the fact that, in its February, 2011 release on Libya, it called for Security Council action (which could, and indeed did, lead to the NATO intervention) and to possible ICC referral (which, in the case of a sitting head of state like Qaddafi, would have required military intervention and regime change to ultimately perfect) based upon false reports. To wit, it based such calls for the internationalization of the conflict on the false report that Qaddafi was bringing in mercenaries from Africa to fight. This not only fed the calls for NATO intervention, but also led to violent reprisals against black Libyans and guest workers. And, of course, AI has never called for Security Council action or ICC referral in regards to these crimes, the current siege against Badi Walid, or against NATO's bombing itself. It is this lack of even-handedness on AI's part, its claims of neutrality to the contrary, which is drawing just criticism from persons such as myself. And, of course, none of this is surprising given that AI USA has now chosen Suzanne Nossel as its new Executive Director. Thus, Ms. Nossel was an open advocate for the U.S.'s use of "soft power' when she served as Assistant Secretary for International Organizations at the U.S. Department of State. And, she oversaw the disgusting pro-NATO "keep the progress going" in Afghanistan campaign when NATO was gathered in Chicago. I would suggest that AI start to take a good, long and hard look at itself and at whether it is in fact acting as the vanguard of imperialist aggression instead of advocating for human rights. Also, here's a thought for you. Instead of R2P (the right to protect), groups like AI should be advocating DR24 (the duty to respect UN Charter Article 2(4) which forbids acts of aggression such as the one NATO leveled against Libya).

  3. You supported an illegal "intervention", otherwise known as "war", AI.

    You can try to obfuscate that fact, but it is still a fact. AI appealed to the war mongers, war appeared from the war mongers. Take credit where credit is due.

    • I agree, we can't really deny the fact because it is the fact. What we can do is to face the fact and find possible solution if we want this facts not to be repeated in our history.

    • There is always the need to be responsible with that you say or write about. With the internet, screening becomes less rigid and we are prone to more error so we must be careful as journalists

  4. If you can, please explain why Suzanne Nossel was still supporting another Libya-like military intervention of Syria after she became Director of Amnesty Int'l? See this excerpt from my piece at http://consortiumnews.com/2012/08/28/selling-war-… :

    Shortly after becoming executive director of AI-USA in January 2012, Suzanne Nossel moderated a panel at Wellesley College, during which she goaded fellow panelist Madeleine Albright to favor even more U.S. intervention:

    “Now as the head of Amnesty International-USA, one point of great frustration and consternation for human rights organizations and civil society organizations over the last eight or nine months has been the failure of the UN Security Council to address, in any way, the deaths of now five thousand civilians in Syria at the hands of President Assad and his military.

    “Last spring the Security Council managed to forge a majority for forceful action in Libya and it was initially very controversial, [causing] many misgivings among key Security Council members. But Gaddafi fell, there’s been a transition there and I think one would have thought those misgivings would have died down. And yet we’ve seen just a continued impasse over Syria and a real, almost return to cold war days and paralysis in the Security Council.

    “How do you explain that and what do you think is the missing ingredient to break that logjam and get the Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria?”

    Even the savvy Madeleine Albright seemed genuinely taken aback by the Amnesty director’s push for a US-NATO Libya-like intervention in Syria. Albright and the other speaker responded skeptically as to what could be achieved through bombing or military force. What shouldn’t have been surprising, however, was Nossel’s minimalizing the thousands of NATO bombing sorties on Libya by calling them a “forceful action,” and her urging a potential UN Security Council authorization to do the same to Syria, referring to this as “living up to its responsibilities.”

    She was already on record, in her prior think tank capacity, lamenting that failure in Iraq might mean Americans would lose their “willingness to use military force [writer’s emphasis] — Iraq as a failed state is likely to herald an era of deep reservations among the U.S. public regarding the use of force — a kind of post-Vietnam, post-Mogadishu hangover.”

  5. I didn't expect to see such cruel executions even in the world of today. I am worried that these things will happen in the future too. Some country refuse to leave the evolution leave a mark on them, it's just sad to see how things go.