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Responsibility to Protect? Libya and the Salvation of Europe


Photo credit: Gender Concerns International and Al-Arabiya News

Launched in 2009 by the United Nations, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a recent addition to western humanitarian discourse. The responsibility and capacity to act on violations of peace, security and human rights existed within the African Union and United Nations, prior to the introduction of R2P (Sarkin). What is new is the promulgation of the right of the west to intervene in foreign conflicts.

The removal of state sovereignty as an impediment to international intervention continues the pattern of western humanitarianism, in which state power can be overrode by western aid mechanisms. Despite this discourse framed as aid and assistance, such humanitarian actions can result in challenging and dismantling the sovereign power of a state. Power is now held by foreign actors who are not accountable to the local people but to their funding sources. Considered in this manner, R2P forms part of a continuum of western intervention in Africa, from the missionaries to colonial occupation to humanitarian assistance; interventions that cast Africans as victims and that enforce the power of the western metropole.

The Italian colonial occupation of Libya (1911-1947) served to create a new identity for post-unification Italy. Libya helped Italy formalize their nascent political and national identity, which cultivated Italy’s power and relationships within Europe. The occupation of Libya provided Italy with the power and prestige necessary to be viewed as a modern European nation by their peers, and a mature player on the international stage.

The promotion of national solidarity and identity would be achieved through a guerra vittoriosa for Libya, to complete and enhance the moral unity of the Italian people. Italian nationalism was identified with Africanismo, empire as a status symbol, an imperial affirmation of national conscience and confidence that would win Italy fame and glory. Benito Mussolini’s ascent to power in 1922 amplified nationalist rhetoric, as he used Italy’s history to legitimize his regime and imperialist ambitions. He called for the creation of a new Roman Empire that would once again stretch across the Mediterranean into North Africa; Libya was to be the fourth shore of this empire (DeGrand). Colonial expansion and conquest were manifestations of national virility, a projection of resurgent Italian power. Such virility, however, would be achieved through genocide. Never a ‘civilizing mission’, Italian colonialism forged a modern Italian national identity through the death and exile of half a million Libyans.

Post-World War II was a period of hegemonic reinvention for Europe and Africa. The Fath revolution of September 1, 1969 was, according to Muammar Gaddafi, a “serious historical transformation” (Roumani, 154) that would re-orientate Libya away from western spheres of political power. The west was seen by Gaddafi the greatest threat to Arab unity, Arab control over resources and to political and economic independence (Collins, 16). Gaddafi worked to promote both Arab and African unity as a counterbalance to the power of the west. An early proponent of a revitalized African Union, Gaddafi called for a United States of Africa and promoted African institutions and solutions that would deny neo-colonial western manipulations across the continent.

Such a political and cultural revolution was to free the Libyan people from the yoke of history and stake their claim on the international stage. This transformation created a new Libyan identity and challenged the power of the west. Gaddafi’s actions during his decades in power drew the ire of western governments. Gaddafi was viewed as yet another African dictator in need of western taming through intervention, to bring the gifts of democracy and human rights to Libya. The challenging of western hegemony resulted in Gaddafi and Libya being pilloried in western discourse; Gaddafi was viewed as a “mad dog” (Bowman) and Libya was deemed to require western intervention to save it from destruction (Adebajo, Al-Ameri, MacAskill). Absent from this manufactured narrative was any recognition of Gaddafi’s motivations in having the west recognize their role in Libya’s history and genocide.

The West also needed Gaddafi, both to act as a gatekeeper against African migration into Europe and as a source for oil (Traynor). Gaddafi and western leaders entered into a complicated dance of provocation and manipulation, each attempting to advance their own hegemonic goals. Italy sought to define their European identity by controlling Mediterranean space and restricting African migration. Gaddafi had utilized European preoccupations of African migration into Europe as leverage in his reparations negotiations with Italy. Manipulating racism and xenophobia, Gaddafi demanded significant funds to keep Europe from “turning black” (Pisa, Squires, 31 Aug. 2010), which exposed Gaddafi’s own racism. Such an arrangement recognized and revitalized colonial racism, to “protect our civilization” as “all civilizations are not of equal value” (Al-Jazeera, 5 Feb. 2012). Money was paid to keep the African Other at one side of the Mediterranean and to protect Italian identity as part of Fortress Europe.

The 2011 NATO assault on Libya was another example of how the Europe utilized Libya to salvage its power and hegemony. The global financial crisis that began in 2008 contaminated many European economies, forcing German Chancellor Angela Merkel to recognize “If the euro falls, then Europe fails.” (Spiegel, 16 May, 2014), with French President Nicolas Sarkozy committing “We will fight to save the euro.” (Campbell, 29).

Once again, European attention turned to Africa. European powers saw an opportunity to utilize military intervention in Libya as a possible solution to their economic crisis, as a successful intervention would provide them with access to and control over Libyan oil resources. Making the case for intervention required a manufactured media strategy that would castigate Gaddafi as the enemy of his people and democracy, a dictator that must be removed for the greater good. The tired tropes of tribal Libya, rogue state, terrorist state, radical Islamist (Campbell, 26) were combined with stories mocking Gaddafi’s “Amazonian bodyguards” (Squires, 26 Aug. 2010) and accusing Gaddafi of providing his army with Viagra to encourage mass rape (MacAskill); manipulating western Islamophobia and the sexualization of Africans to sell the necessity of western intervention. Popular memory linking Gaddafi to the Lockerbie bombing, the international sanctions lodged against Libya, and Gaddafi’s behaviour over the past decades were all recycled to create a popular narrative encouraging the necessity of western military action in Libya. Such action was promoted as positive for both the Libyan people and for the safety and security of western democracy (Gazzini, 2011).

The United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 (17 March, 2011) authorized “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” (The Guardian, 17 Mar. 2011). However, the brutality of the NATO bombing campaign belied the initial justification of R2P (Milne). The immediate and intense NATO military action contradicted a core tenant of R2P, which emphasizes nonmilitary solutions and the use of force as rare last resort.

In the case of Libya, R2P was not intended to save Libyans. Rather, the NATO intervention was to safeguard European power and hegemony. The NATO assault resulted in Gaddafi’s assassination, the deaths of thousands of civilians and the creation of a political vacuum in Libya. Western powers are now ensconced in the establishment of Libya’s new regime, as the challenges to power of the European Union and the hegemony of European identity endure. African and Middle Eastern refugee migration into Europe has risen dramatically, due in part to western interventions in these regions. European governments have labeled this increased refugee migration a ‘crisis’, and are initiating tighter border controls and other restrictions to stem the flow of the Other. A newly created European fund of $1.8 billion is directed at returning refugees and migrants to Africa, and funding African governments to enforce their borders (Kanter). Absent from these actions is a recognition and understanding of what is driving the refugee migration ‘crisis’, that it is crisis these refugees are fleeing, and the history behind this ‘crisis’ – which has Oxfam International asking: “Are we moving from ‘Fortress Europe’ to ‘Prison Africa’?” (Oxfam). The narratives of stability and R2P ring increasingly hollow.



Adebajo, Adekeye. “Gaddafi: the despot who would be king.” Mail and Guardian 04 Mar. 2011. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Al-Ameri, Alaa. “Gaddafi is a legitimate target.” The Guardian 3 May 2011. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Bowman, Tom. “For Reagan, Gadhafi Was A Frustrating ‘Mad Dog’” NPR 4 Mar. 2011. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Kanter, James. “European and African Leaders Near Deal on Returning Migrants” New York Times 11 Nov. 2015. n.p. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

MacAskill, Ewen. “Gaddafi ‘supplies troops with Viagra to encourage mass rape’, claims diplomat.” The Guardian 29 Ap. 2011. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Milne, Seamus. “If the Libyan war was about saving lives, it was a catastrophic failure.” The Guardian 26 Oct. 2011. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015

Oxfam International. Oxfam Position Paper for EU-Africa Migration Summit. 11 Nov. 2015. n.p. Web. 13 Nov. 2015

Pisa, Nick. “’Pay me £4bn a year and I’ll stop Europe from turning black’: Col Gaddafi demands EU cash to stop immigration via Libya.” Daily Mail 31 Aug. 2010. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Speigel, Peter. “If the Euro Falls, Europe Fails.” Financial Times 15 May 2014. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Squires, Nick. “Gaddafi: Europe will ‘turn black’ unless EU pays Libya £4bn a year.” The Telegraph 31 Aug. 2010. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

_______________. “Libya’s Gaddafi heads to Italy with tent, ‘Amazonian’ bodyguards and 30 Berber horses.” The Telegraph 26 Aug. 2010. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Traynor, Ian. “EU keen to strike deal with Muammar Gaddafi on immigration.” The Guardian 1 Sept. 2010. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

“Sarkozy ally says all civilisations not equal.” Al-Jazeera 5 Feb. 2012. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

“UN security council resolution 1973 (2011) on Libya – full text”. The Guardian 17 Mar. 2011. n.p. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.


Ahmida, Ali Abdullatif. Forgotten Voices: Power and Agency in Colonial and Postcolonial Libya. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Ben-Ghiat, Ruth and Mia Fuller., eds. Italian Colonialism. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. Print.

Campbell, Horace. Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013. Print.

Collins, Carole. “Imperialism and Revolution in Libya.” Middle East Research and Information Project Reports 27 (1974): 3-22. Print.

DeGrand, Alexander. “Mussolini’s Follies: Fascism in its Imperial and Racist Phase, 1935-1940.” Contemporary European History 13.2 (2004): 127-147. Print.

DelMonte, Stefania. Staging Memory: Myth, Symbolism and Identity in Postcolonial Italy and Libya. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, 2015. Print.

Gazzini, Claudia. “Was the Libyan Intervention Necessary?” Middle East Report 261 (2011): 2-9. Print.

Roumani, Jacques. “From Republic to Jamahiriya: Libya’s Search for Political Community.” Middle East Journal 37.2 (1983): 151-168. Print.

Sarkin, Jeremy. “The Role of the United Nations, the African Union and Africa’s Sub-Regional Organizations in Dealing with Africa’s Human Rights Problems: Connecting Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect.” Journal of African Law 53.1 (2009): 1-33. Print.

About Bonnie Bates (13 Articles)
Currently working towards a Masters in History and African Studies at Carleton University, my areas of interest include North African and Saharan history, gender, identity, culture, politics and language.

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