Europe has only itself to blame for the refugee crisis

Rajan Menon

On 11 September, massive floods created by Storm Daniel ruptured two dams built in the Seventies to protect Derna in eastern Libya, exposing its denizens to unstoppable torrents of water. The smell of rotting bodies and sewage seeping from busted pipes suffused the air. Bridges were broken, homes demolished. Contaminated water, wrecked sanitation systems, and the shortage of potable water has raised fears about the outbreak of cholera. The UN reports that 43,000 people have been displaced, with 11,300 killed and 9,000 still missing.

Though forgotten by the media in the face of more immediate Middle-Eastern tragedies, a UN mission is attempting to restore order. But such ambitions, reasonable in theory, fundamentally depend on the domestic political situation and whether the government in charge is competent or, as in Libya’s case, broken. Such analysis of Libya as a “failed state” is a longstanding characterisation in the West, and has similarly been revived in recent months as an explanation for the renewed flow of refugees to Europe.

But while blaming this on the breakdown of governance in Libya is a logical first step, we mustn’t stop there. That would be to ignore the roots of the dysfunction, which can be traced to the Nato-led intervention launched on 19 March, 2011. Libya’s state didn’t passively “fail”; the West triggered its failure through its programme of so-called humanitarian interventionism.

This isn’t to say that the description of state failure inside Libya is incorrect. It’s undeniable — indeed at present there isn’t a “state” to speak of. Not only does the country contain two rival governments (one in the capital, Tripoli, the other in Tobruk), but a Gaddafi-era general, Khalifa Haftar, acts autonomously and answers to neither administration, though he nominally backs the one in the east. Beyond him, a multitude of armed militias dominate fragments of the country and thrive by running illicit businesses. Terrorist groups and drug and human trafficking networks add to the mayhem. Outsiders — including Turkey, Russia, Egypt, Syria and the United Arab Emirates — have worsened the turmoil and violence by backing different Libyan clients.

These circumstances have made even the minimally competent governance needed to manage disasters such as Derna impossible. The nation’s infrastructure, especially Derna’s dams, had fallen into a state of disrepair, some of it damaged by the persistent violence. This was no secret: Libyan engineers had long been sounding the alarm. But institutions capable of taking responsibility for such critical tasks have become scarce since Libya’s state disintegrated in 2011.

For 42 years before that event, Muammar Gaddafi, a military officer who toppled the Western-supported monarchy of King Idris in 1969, ruled Libya in a brutal, authoritarian manner. But the country did at least have a central authority capable of policy-making and state action. Everything changed once the sudden shockwaves of the Arab Spring reached Libya and Gaddafi faced a popular uprising, which he promptly sought to crush. But as it gathered strength, clashes between protestors and security forces led to increasing bloodshed, and Western leaders, notably France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s prime minister David Cameron, demanded intervention to protect Libyan civilians.

Within a month of the intervention, some 600,000 people had fled, seeking safety in adjacent countries, most of them migrants from sub-Saharan Africa originally lured to the country by the prospect of finding jobs. But economic desperation soon induced migrants from neighbouring countries — the bulk of them from Niger, Egypt, Sudan and Chad — to head to Libya again, some seeking work, others a passageway out of Africa. It did not take long for Europeans to feel the ripple effects.

Though there were refugee flows from Libya to Europe even during Gaddafi’s rule, the country’s coast was more effectively policed because there was a functioning government. Gaddafi also cooperated directly with European leaders to reduce the exodus in exchange for cash: at one point he had demanded €5 billion annually, but in 2010 settled for €50 million over three years. But once the intervention put an end to Gaddafi’s regime and mayhem ensued, migrants from Libya and other African countries started crossing the Mediterranean to Europe in far larger numbers, many in makeshift boats.

Since then, this movement has ebbed and flowed, but never ceased. In March a legislator from Italian PM Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, citing intelligence reports, claimed that nearly 700,000 people are in Libya awaiting the opportunity to get to Europe. Though UN officials dismissed that figure, this much seems certain: whatever the precise number, Libya will remain a launch pad for destitute people eyeing Europe, no matter the EU’s payments to various African countries, and even Libyan militias, to stanch the flow.

And the arrival of droves of refugees on Europe’s shores has aggravated the discord within the EU as member states bicker over how the burden ought to be shared. The first refugee crisis peaked in 2015, but it is once again remaking European politics as far-Right parties exploit xenophobic tropes and play upon public anxieties to increase their appeal. Libya’s “state failure” has washed across the Mediterranean and into the countries of the leaders who precipitated it back in 2011.

In seeking a prime mover for the disaster in Derna and the refugee crisis however, we must return to the Nato-led intervention and the mindset that drove it. As I show in my 2016 book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, the 2011 uprising in Libya was never as peaceful as was widely reported; nor, as was often alleged, did Gaddafi’s forces train heavy weapons on demonstrators with abandon. Gaddafi’s opponents also exaggerated the number of civilians that were killed by his security forces, as did Western advocates of armed intervention.

The frightening estimates of those who were still in danger of being killed ultimately amounted to guesswork. (White House Middle East expert Dennis Ross’s warning that 100,000 people in Benghazi — which then had a population of about 674,000 —  would die was an egregious example.) Likewise, as US intelligence officials subsequently stated, the claim of Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN that Gaddafi had distributed Viagra to his troops so that they could commit mass rape lacked evidence.

Still, as the violence in Libya continued, demands for forceful action to stop it intensified, in part because the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P), which offered a plan to stop mass atrocities, was in its heyday. Its principles had even been included in the Outcome Document the UN adopted in 2005, its 50th anniversary.

The essence of R2P — elaborated upon in a report from December 2001 — was that state sovereignty was not unconditional. When governments proved demonstrably incapable of fulfilling their basic responsibility to protect their people, or worse were subjecting them to atrocities, the international community was duty-bound to step in, using military force if other means had failed. This was the moral reasoning that led the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1973 on 17 March, 2011, as Gaddafi’s crackdown continued.

The resolution authorised a military operation — led by Nato but including states outside the alliance — whose remit was to protect Libyan civilians. But the campaign quickly morphed into one that, whether by design or default, overthrew Gaddafi, who was eventually murdered by rebel forces. The power vacuum was soon filled by the anarchy and violence that persists to this day.

That denouement was preventable. R2P didn’t merely call for military intervention, as a last resort, to save civilians from harm; it also stressed the importance of establishing order and helping to promote economic recovery thereafter. But the countries that spearheaded the 2011 intervention were not nearly as enthusiastic about the former as they were about the latter. Ironically, one of R2P’s originators later described the intervention as a “textbook case of the R2P norm working exactly as it was supposed to”.

In the event, it proved to be a wrecking ball that shattered the Libyan state and saddled its people with the task of making their broken country whole again. Strikingly, while the major Western powers vigorously called attention to the dangers facing Libyan civilians in 2011, they do not display the same fervour today, never mind that the confirmed deaths in Derna alone far exceed the total for all of Libya in 2011. Nor have the high priests of humanitarian intervention outside officialdom demanded action in Derna or even publicised its plight with the passion they summoned back in 2011.

Samantha Power, now the head of the US Agency for International Development, then a National Security Council staffer, visited Armenia and Azerbaijan recently to take stock of the refugee crisis that was created by the Azerbaijan’s army conquest of Nagorno Karabakh, the country’s Armenian-majority enclave that declared its independence in 1992.

Derna, however, was not on her travel schedule, even though she was among the prominent voices that called for the 2011 humanitarian intervention that left Libya in the disarray that soon earned it the “failed state” moniker. As for the press, after an initial spate of reportage, the coverage of Derna’s suffering has trailed off, even though the miseries of its people are still very much in evidence.

The humanitarian intervention movement, and R2P, its programme, was motivated by a high-minded mission: eliminating or at least mitigating  the persistent, serious harm of mass atrocities committed mainly by governments. Yet the lesson offered by Libya — and Iraq and Afghanistan too — is that deploying military force in other countries in order to stop bloodshed and oppression can unwittingly promote prolonged disorder and violence, upending the lives of the intended beneficiaries.

Perhaps Western leaders have learned this lesson. Then again, the hubris produced by overweening power dies hard. Some neoconservatives and liberal internationalists of a markedly millenarian mindset continue to believe that their earlier failures were rooted not in extravagant ambitions but in deficiencies of planning and implementation that can be fixed. As long as this delusion continues, more Libya-like interventions animated by visions of benevolent social engineering await.


Rajan Menon is the Director of the Grand Strategy programme at Defense Priorities and a senior research fellow at Columbia University.


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