NATO in Libya: ten years on, a time for reckoning

Summary: NATO’s intervention in Libya’s civil war was instrumental in the defeat of Muammar Gaddafi but it caused civilian deaths for which there has been no accounting.

We thank Oliver Imhof for his article which we are publishing on the eve of the 10th anniversary of NATO’s engagement in Libya. Oliver is a Libya analyst for Airwars. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for the Guardian and Vice, with a particular focus on the Middle East.

When the first missiles fired from French Rafale jets hit Libyan regime artillery on March 19th 2011, they were supposed to save lives and help avoid chaos. Yet good intentions can often seem naive when they meet with the reality of the region, and ten years on many see NATO’s intervention as marking the beginning of a decade of bloody foreign interference in the North African country.

For the tenth anniversary of the conflict, Airwars has conducted the first comprehensive overview of civilian harm from all belligerents, based on the available public materials.

The 2011 Libyan civil war had begun on February 17th as an Arab Spring-style uprising, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to protest against the eccentric and often brutal rule of  the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Within weeks Gaddafi’s forces had brutally crushed most demonstrations, and were closing in on the last major rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

With fears of a Srebrenica-style massacre, the United Nations passed a resolution demanding the protection of civilians, with NATO eventually taking up the baton. Over seven months the international coalition bombed the Colonel’s forces and turned the tide in the war, which officially ended in October as Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebels in his home city of Sirte.

Yet for an intervention explicitly tasked with protecting civilians, neither during nor after the war was a thorough analysis undertaken of the number of civilians likely killed by all sides.

The  Libya 2011 overview is a detailed look at a brief but violent conflict that killed at least 1,142 civilians and injured at least one thousand more in 212 incidents of concern researched  by Airwars. At the highest estimate, as many as 3,409 civilians were killed in those events.

High civilian cost

Airwars has tracked tens of thousands of civilians killed across the Middle East in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in recent years. The majority of those deaths are tracked by our team in near real time – in the days after each incident we gather all possible information from open sources and preserve them for posterity. Doing such work a decade on from a conflict is fraught with challenges. Many documents and social media posts from the time have since disappeared from the web. And in 2011, social media use by Libyans was still relatively limited, and independent media in the country was not yet established.

All this means our numbers are likely to be underestimates, with the real tally of civilian deaths significantly higher during the 2011 uprising and civil war.

What we can show is that the majority of civilian harm identified in the events reviewed by Airwars was reportedly caused by forces of the Gaddafi regime – with between 869 and 1,999 likely deaths and 834 to 1,252 injuries identified from 105 civilian harm events. Overall, as many as 2,364 civilian deaths were locally alleged from these same Gaddafi actions. Many more small-scale killings have yet to be fully documented.

Airwars reviewed 3,691 airstrikes reportedly conducted by NATO and its allies during Libya 2011, which between them resulted in 223 to 403 likely civilian deaths and 215 to 357 injuries in 83 incidents of concern, according to our assessment. The numbers are considerably higher than investigations by the UN, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch who had not taken smaller scale events into account.

Among the three parties to Libya’s 2011 war, the lowest documented number of civilian casualties was reported from rebel actions – with 54 incidents of concern reviewed by Airwars containing allegations of between 50 and 113 likely deaths.

That relatively low estimate of reported civilian harm from rebel actions can be explained by the lack of an air force and access to heavy weapons, particularly early on. It may also reflect a lack of media interest at the time.

“Libya is a mess”

The tragedy of Libya’s 2011 war was not just of those killed, but of the new reality it ushered in.

Following a couple of years of uneasy calm, by 2014 the country had slipped back into violence and had split in two, an on-and-off civil war that turned Libya into a failed state. Many hopes were betrayed and opportunities missed in a country with the largest oil reserves in Africa. During this period, the opportunity was also missed to properly undertake reconstruction from the damage that had been done during the 2011 war.

Only in October 2020 was a United Nations-brokered deal seemingly able to bring a decade of violence to an end, though the rifts that spurred it remain.

Barack Obama later described the failure to plan for what came after the NATO intervention in Libya as a “shit show” and his biggest foreign policy mistake. “We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess,” he told The Atlantic in 2016.

A decade on from NATO’s intervention, neither it nor any individual member has ever publicly admitted to a single civilian death from their actions. Libyans themselves tell a very different story.

And while Airwars found that some victims were paid compensation by one of the many governments Libya has had after the revolution, this was only for damage done to property. Efforts to create a proper mechanism for restitution were abandoned when the country slipped into civil war again in 2014.

Better times could finally now be ahead for Libyans as the country’s politicians recently agreed on their first unified government since 2014, which has now committed to working on a reconciliation process for those affected by the civil wars. It could also be an opportunity for some in the international community to go down the same route, and acknowledge the civilian deaths they caused ten years ago, in the cause of protecting civilians.

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