Blindspot 48 – Thanks NATO! Libya (still) at war 11 years after bombing it in the name of the ‘Right to Protect’ R2P

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Thanks NATO! Libya (still) at war 11 years after bombing it in the name of the 'Right to Protect' R2P

Blindspot #048

I – What happened in Tripoli?

II – Back to 2011 and the so-called ‘Right to Protect’ / R2P

III – Will Humpty Dumpty ever be made whole again? 

In the past week violent clashes between Libya’s two rival ‘governments’ erupted in the capital city, Tripoli. Elections were scheduled to take place in December, 2021, these are now seemingly indefinitely postponed. However, this Blindspot is about much more than merely the recent armed confrontation between the UN backed/recognised government, and that of the East. It is about the deeper history that led to this situation. 

I – What happened in Tripoli?

Aljazeera reports that on Friday 26 and Saturday 27, August, clashes broken out between rival militias in Tripoli. On Saturday it was reported that at least 32 people were killed, with 159 injured. Aljazeera describes the crux of recent fighting as such: 

“Armed fighters backing the United Nations-recognised government based in Tripoli and the forces loyal to rival Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha have been engaged in the gun fighting threatening the civilian population… Tensions have simmered since Bashagha was appointed prime minister in February by the eastern parliament based in Tobruk, with Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the head of the UN-recognised Government of National Unity (GNU), refusing to cede power. The UN-backed government says it has taken control of the capital after the worst fighting in two years.”

Essentially Libya has become a failed state with two rival governments, one based in Tripoli, and the other in Tobruk. Recent clashes came about as a result of Bashagha, and his ministers, attempting to enter Tripoli in a bid to unseat what they see as an illegitimate government led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. The indefinite postponement of the December elections, of course, also play major role with Libyans arguing that the mandate of the UN-backed government has long since expired. 

II – Back to 2011, and the so-called R2P

What is this idea called the ‘Right to Protect’ that was invoked by the UN, and ‘implemented’ by NATO via an intensive bombing campaign, and blind arms drops into the desert to arm people to rise up and fight the government of Muammar Gaddafi. Dr Simon Adams argue that this concept was central to the U.N. mandate to protect civilians in Libya, which led to NATO’s aerial involvement there. 

Adams furthermore argues that, ‘Even though R2P features in just two paragraphs of the 40-page “outcome document” of the 2005 U.N. World Summit, historian Martin Gilbert has suggested that it constituted “the most significant adjustment to national sovereignty in 360 years.”’

According to the R2P concept: all governments are obliged to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. It is positioned as a preventive doctrine. However, R2P also acknowledges that we live in an imperfect world and if a state is “manifestly failing” to meet its responsibilities, the international community is obligated to act. It is not a right to intervene but a responsibility to protect.

Whichever way one would want to interpret this concept, the most important blindspot we want to cast some light on is the fact that while much debate circumnavigated the world at the time regarding invoking the R2P principle, very few people are, eleven years later asking: so, did R2P deliver a ‘protected’ public and citizenry in Libya? 

If news from recent days is anything to go by, it is evident that not only were citizens not protected then, but, the long-term long war that keeps churning out body bags in Libya, show that the NATO bombs and weapons ripped the country even further apart to a point where more than a decade later the country is still at war with itself with little ‘protection’ of people resulting from the lofty R2P thinking. 

III – Will Humpty Dumpty ever be made ‘whole’ again?

Going by developments in Libya during recent days it is just about impossible to answer the question as to whether the egg can be put together again. But, more importantly, in a period where news is dominated by the Ukraine conflict, and the global fall-out thereof, we need to ask questions about so-called International principles, such as R2P. 

At the time of the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi the R2P concept was deployed by media, commentators, and decision-makers as a panacea, an unavoidable intervention in the name of protecting the citizens of Libya. While it may have caused some ‘feel good’ talking points, no-one is asking how this right to protect has aged? Clearly not very well. NATO planes made way for Turkish drones, and significant foreign involvement in the conflict. Are the citizens of Libya protected? Were they protected in 2011 by NATO bombing the country back to the stone age? The answer is clearly NOT then, and after more than a decade of war, we can conclude by saying, citizens are most certainly NOT being ‘protected’ NOW, either. 


Simon Adams. 2011. R2P and the Libya mission. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. 28 September, 2011. 

Aljazeera. 2022. Explainer – What we know about Libya’s worst fighting in two years. 28 August, 2022.