Nato bombing of Libya ‘exceeded UN mandate’

A new book by the UN's top man on the ground in Libya during the anti-Gaddafi uprising argues Nato indulged in “mission creep” and gave “unconvincing” arguments for promoting regime change in the name of protecting civilians.

19 May 2022
Ian Martin with the then UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. (Photo: Prakash Mathema / AFP via Getty)

Ian Martin with the then UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. (Photo: Prakash Mathema / AFP via Getty)

  • Ian Martin says Nato states’ deployments of special forces were “deliberately concealed” from the UN Security Council
  • UK and France were not interested in a negotiated outcome, which might have avoided the collapse of the Libyan state
  • Nato’s failure to investigate civilian deaths from its bombing campaign “raises major questions of accountability”

A common criticism of Sir John Chilcot’s marathon inquiry into the Iraq war is that by the time it made recommendations to Whitehall, another intervention had already taken place in Libya. 

But at least Britain’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was seen as sufficiently disastrous to warrant a high-level probe. David Cameron’s adventure in Libya, on the other hand, has faded from public consciousness, except for a brief audit by a committee of backbench MPs. 

After overthrowing Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, post-revolution Libya quickly descended into a bloody civil war and safe haven for international terrorism. Nato-backed regime change may well have caused more problems than it solved. 

Since 2014, the Foreign Office has advised against all travel to the north African nation due to safety concerns. Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, is seen as a serious contender in next month’s presidential election, despite being wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

At a time when there should be soul searching over Nato’s record, the opposite is happening. Uncritical support of the “defensive alliance” is being demanded over Nato’s approach to Russia, even as similar scenarios present themselves to policy makers.

One exception is Ian Martin, who ran the UN’s support mission in Libya from 2011-12. Although his new book was completed this January, just before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, many of his reflections on Libya are relevant to how Whitehall now approaches Russia.

For instance: At what point does military aid shift from being defensive to offensive? Is a peaceful political settlement possible, or is regime change the real aim? Is there enough accountability over British special forces on the ground? Is the ICC’s role being politicised? Who exactly is receiving Western weaponry and what will they do with it after the conflict?

Martin, a former head of Amnesty International, is not against Western military intervention per se. He welcomed Australian troops arriving in East Timor in 1999, but says he “strongly opposed the illegal US-UK invasion of Iraq, resigning my long-standing membership of Tony Blair’s Labour Party.” 

This attitude towards international relations makes him a sober judge of events in Libya. He believes military intervention was initially justified, given Gaddafi’s ruthless rhetoric and action towards peaceful protesters. But he feels predictions of a genocide (which occupied the mind of Britain’s military leader General Richards) “seem in retrospect wildly overblown”.

Ian Martin and Ban Ki-moon visit a warehouse in Tripoli where Gaddafi’s forces reportedly tortured, executed and torched over 100 detainees. (Photo: Evan Schneider / UN)
Ian Martin and Ban Ki-moon visit a warehouse in Tripoli where Gaddafi’s forces reportedly tortured, executed and torched over 100 detainees. (Photo: Evan Schneider / UN)

Supporting the rebels

After sanctions and an arms embargo failed to deter Gaddafi, the UN Security Council passed a second resolution on 17 March 2011, authorising “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. Martin deftly parses the geo-politics of that vote, carefully capturing the dynamics among members from both the global north and south. 

Crucially, Russia and China abstained, effectively allowing what they saw as a limited short-term mandate to stop reprisals by Gaddafi in rebel-held areas of eastern Libya. But the UK, US and France interpreted the resolution differently: as carte blanche to keep bombing pro-regime forces anywhere in the country.

Their targets included Libya’s capital, in the west, where even a Gaddafi family compound and state TV satellite dishes were hit. The air war would not stop until rebels had taken power.  

“Nato operations had increasingly extended from preventing attacks by Gaddafi’s forces to supporting rebel advances,” Martin writes. British attack helicopters were “pivotal”, he says, “in supporting the final assault on Tripoli” in August 2011. 

“Nato operations had increasingly extended from preventing attacks by Gaddafi’s forces to supporting rebel advances”

He believes there was “mission creep” and that “Nato’s arguments that its support for rebels’ attacks on Tripoli, and after its fall, on Sirte and Bani Walid, were necessary to protect civilians are unconvincing.” 

Martin appears particularly sceptical of Nato’s claim not to have realised it was tracking a convoy carrying Gaddafi the day he was killed in Sirte in October 2011. Martin notes, pointedly, that there were over 100 people watching the feed in Nato’s command bunker instead of the usual 30. Nato concluded its air war days later.

The long-term consequences of the Western alliance overstepping the UN mandate cannot be underestimated. Martin comments: “It is impossible to believe that there would have been the necessary votes in the Security Council, let alone the withholding of vetoes by Russia and China, if the full extent of the military campaign had been foreseen.” 

Some scholars say the Libya war eliminated whatever trust the Kremlin had left in Nato. Putin was reportedly fixated by video footage of Gaddafi’s lynching in Sirte. His recent crackdowns on opposition movements in Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan may be partly motivated by a fear he could share Gaddafi’s fate.


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‘Questions of accountability’

The longer Nato dropped bombs, the greater risk there was of hitting civilian targets. Martin credits Nato for taking precautions that resulted in “remarkably few civilian casualties” and “strict adherence to rules of engagement” that ultimately meant it was “unable to strike some 70% of the targets in its database”.  

But he does not ignore that a portion of the 7,642 air-to-surface weapons dropped by Nato did kill civilians, contrary to the alliance’s initial claim of zero confirmed casualties. 

Martin cites estimates ranging from 55 deaths (Amnesty) up to 403 (Airwars). He criticises Nato’s high command for refusing to investigate incidents itself, and Nato members for passing the buck between each other. He feels the situation “raises major questions of accountability”.

Nato was also supposed to enforce a UN arms embargo on Libya, but instead allowed shipments from Gulf states destined for the rebels. Qatar reportedly provided 20,000 tons of weapons, which Martin describes as “massive breaches of the arms embargo.” 

  “Missions were ‘deliberately concealed’ from the UN Security Council”

The United Arab Emirates built a mountain airstrip for its clandestine deliveries. British special forces worked on the logistics of these supplies. France airdropped rocket launchers and machine guns, only informing the UN once it became a public scandal.

Another of Martin’s concerns is that individual Nato members did put ‘boots on the ground’, and we still know very little about what they did. He criticises a “lack of transparency regarding extensive bilateral military operations, including deployment to Libya of covert special forces” by Western and Gulf states.

Although the UN resolution precluded a “foreign occupation force”, British special forces went as far as accompanying and advising a rebel commander throughout the advance on Tripoli. Qatar’s chief of staff claimed to have deployed “hundreds” of his commandos in every region of Libya. 

Martin laments “since the special forces operations and other military assistance were not officially declared, their legality has been little debated.” He says such missions were “deliberately concealed” from the UN Security Council and the UK “remained silent about the presence of its special forces during the fighting.” 

Ultimately, he reflects, “for democratic countries, the secret role of special forces raises major questions of domestic as well as international accountability.”


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Give peace a chance?

Another consequence of continuing Nato’s military intervention is that it reduced prospects for a peaceful political settlement, making battlefield victory the only conceivable endgame. Britain’s General Richards had actually argued for a ceasefire and negotiations after the initial threat to civilians in Benghazi had passed, but Cameron disagreed. 

The extreme difficulties faced by Libya’s post-revolution governments in uniting the country should certainly prompt reflection on whether a negotiated outcome would have been better. Martin explores it in some depth, and a troubling picture emerges. 

A face-to-face meeting between a UN envoy and Gaddafi in Tripoli was scuppered because of fears Nato might bomb their location. The UN official met his son Saif instead, but even that location was not cleared by Nato and resulted in a “close call”. 

Although Norway dropped around 10% of Nato bombs on Libya, it was the most proactive alliance member in seeking negotiations. Its foreign minister criticised the “mindset in London and Paris” for not being interested in a negotiated settlement, arguing it would have been better to “achieve a less dramatic outcome and avoid the collapse of the Libyan state.”

Martin believes the UK was too dismissive of African Union (AU) attempts to mediate between Gaddafi and the rebels. British diplomats even lobbied against AU plans to call for a ceasefire. He feels this approach gave the rebels “little incentive to compromise”.

While Martin acknowledges that even the best peace plan might still have failed, “foundering on Gaddafi’s extreme obduracy and the virulence of the hatred he had engendered among many Libyans, it was far from what was tried.”


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International justice

Negotiations often fell apart over the thorny question of Gaddafi’s fate: imprisonment, exile or just resignation. Surprisingly, even the most maximalist actors were open to scenarios short of sending Gaddafi to the Hague.

A UK development minister considered exiling Gaddafi to Equatorial Guinea, which was not subject to the ICC. As late as June 2011, even the rebellion’s leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil told the UN privately that Gaddafi could stay in Libya if he stood down and withdrew his forces. 

Yet the international court relished going after the Gaddafi regime, further reducing the prospect of a negotiated transfer of power. The prosecutor even posed for a photograph on the ruins of a tank bombed by Nato, making the ICC’s politics plain.

On this issue Martin is quite scathing: “Although the prosecutor of the ICC said that he would investigate war crimes by both sides, the eagerness with which he seized on allegations of a policy by Gaddafi to encourage rape, with hundreds of victims, and the provision of ‘viagra-type medicaments’ to his forces, did nothing to enhance a perception of objectivity when they went unsubstantiated.”

Martin also reminds readers that Libyan rebels killed civilians too, and that Nato – despite its mandate to protect all civilians – did not intercede. “The taking of Sirte was, in fact, not without atrocities,” he notes. Human Rights Watch found 53 bodies there apparently of Gaddafi supporters, some of whom appeared to have been executed. 

“Nato failed to act against rebel crimes,” Martin believes, because “they occured in densely populated areas where Nato already had difficulty distinguishing between the different factions; air strikes would endanger more civilian lives; and rebel crimes were disorganised and scattered.”

In one city, rebel commanders “acknowledged trying to provoke Gaddafi’s artillery into firing in the direction of civilians so that Nato would strike.” African migrant workers in Libya were, Martin says, the “victims of serious human rights violations”, with several nationals of sub-Saharan countries “brutally attacked and killed.”

Perceptions of Nato double standards towards human rights and international law have only sharpened since the Libya war. Trump sanctioned the ICC chief prosecutor for trying to investigate US atrocities in Afghanistan. 

She has since been replaced by a British lawyer, who the UK government is enthusiastically funding to probe Russian war crimes in Ukraine.


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Failed state

Despite Nato’s toppling of Gaddafi, achieving stability since the revolution has been much harder both within Libya and as far afield as Mali. “Nato airstrikes had blown open Gaddafi’s stockpiles, contributing to the outflow of weapons from Libya to the Sahel”, Martin reflects.

The rebel’s National Transitional Council (NTC) was led by Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril, who both defected from Gaddafi’s regime early in the uprising. Defections were a key reason behind the revolution’s victory, but members of the ancien régime were often treated with suspicion by religiously conservative rebels who saw them as too secular.

Martin notes that “Islamist fighters became a major element among the armed groups”, with Qatar “steering its supplies to Islamist networks”. He says this had “long-lasting consequences” and that “the arming and training of different armed groups outside any chain of command aggravated the later challenge of asserting state authority over them.”

The NTC’s Warriors Affairs Commission identified 162,702 fighters who took part in the revolution. They in turn owed their allegiances to hundreds of different militias. These needed either demobilising or integrating into formal state security bodies. 

British planners identified the most critical early security challenge as “ensuring anti-Gaddafi militia do not evolve into armed wings of political factions”. It was to prove impossible.

Many Islamists did form political parties and stood in swiftly arranged democratic elections – an event Martin regards as a “considerable organisational achievement”. And unlike in Egypt,  where the Muslim Brotherhood won the June 2012 presidential election, Islamists failed to win Libya’s vote the following month.

However, the new  administration would rely on their militias for security – creating a volatile dynamic. “Rather than demobilising, armed groups dug in to protect their political and economic interests,” he notes.

Although many Islamists abhored terrorism, some did not, and saw an opportunity in post-war Libya to set up shop. In April 2012, Martin’s vehicle was attacked by a small IED in Benghazi, Libya’s second city. Then in September, an Al-Qaeda franchise killed the US ambassador.

Martin left Libya soon after the election, modestly preferring to let an Arabic speaker and regional expert take over. 

As such, his book stops short of exploring how these dynamics ultimately collapsed Libya and spawned terrorist attacks in Europe. But it provides timely and carefully considered context for understanding what happened in 2011 and beyond.

Ian Martin’s book, ‘All Necessary Measures? The United Nations and International Intervention in Libya’, is published by Hurst (£30).