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Military intervention in Libya appears to be no longer defensible

18 May 2011


From the Dean of Brechin

Sir, — The continuing involvement of British troops in the action in Libya must now be a great cause of concern both for the Ministry of Defence, with regard to whether some of the military actions are defensible in terms of international law, and also for the Church, in terms of whether involvement can still be defended as just and there­fore licit for Christians.

The intervention took place un­der a United Nations resolution that was speci­fically concerned with defending the rights of civilians and that was not aimed at achieving regime change.

UN authorisation is usually a necessary but not a sufficient basis for intervention. Under just-war theory, however, all steps need to have been taken before resorting to violence. Initial attempts by Ven­ezuela to broker a deal (which led to William Hague’s being confident that Colonel Gaddafi would retire to Venezuela) were undermined by the US State Department.

After the conflict had started, the African Union sent a peace delega­tion to Tripoli on 10 April, and agreed a roadmap for the resolution of the situation in Libya. This in­volved a ceasefire and a dialogue be­tween government and rebel forces on a political settlement. On 11 April, statements from the US and the UK called for the departure of Gaddafi from power and from Libya; and, in the light of these state­ments, the rebel leadership re­jected the proposals. A few days later on 14 April, Britain, France, and the US released a joint letter designed to “make the rebels more defiant”.

The Chief of the Defence Staff has just been reported as want­ing to bomb more targets so as to negate any “risk that the conflict could result in Gaddafi clinging to power”. It is also reported that the military knew of civilians fleeing Libya by boat, but delayed giving help, with the result that many of them died on the high seas.

Libya itself has always been an uneasy mix of tribal loyalties. The present regime, while lacking sup­port in the east, has significant sup­port in Tripoli and the west. Per­haps, pragmatically, the best way to safeguard civilians is by an immedi­ate ceasefire, the suspension of NATO airstrikes, dialogue between the regime and the rebels, and the medium-term offering of a safe haven (Venezuela?) to Gaddafi.

Greece, Turkey, India, South Africa, and the African Union have all endeavoured to mediate, but their efforts have been undermined by the hard-line Western insistence on regime change — an aim that is not legitimised by the UN resolution.

It is further noteworthy that very different criteria on intervention are applied by the West when it comes to other countries whose record on human rights is significantly worse than Libya’s. The involvement of the International Criminal Court in cases such as Libya is not consist­ent.

I have recently co-written a report, Afghanistan: A just war?, sponsored by Action of Churches Together in Scotland. This report showed how difficult and how important it was to be clear about criteria for embarking on military action and about the limitations that just-war thinking demands during the course of the fighting. Clarity about aims and objectives and in continually checking what is being done against what ought to be done is essential if mission creep is to be avoided.

I am deeply concerned that the military intervention in Libya has now reached the point at which it cannot be defended either in inter­national law or in terms of Chris­tian ethics. If this is the case, then the UK Government should cease its military involvement forthwith.

9 Castle Street

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