Special Report

Firing Into a Continent

Humanitarian intervention in Libya -- "an appalling fatuity," to borrow words from Joseph Conrad.

By 5.2.11

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In the spring of 1890, the West African kingdom of Dahomey and the French Third Republic were on the brink of war, primarily over the status of the flourishing port city of Cotonou. Tensions had been mounting for years, with French colonial inroads meeting staunch local opposition. "Absolutely no one," a diplomatic dispatch from the Dahomean capital of Abomey read, "not even the King of Dahomey, ever gives their possessions to any other nation." It was a classic exposition of the traditional international legal norms of sovereignty and non-interference, but in the context of the Course au Clocher, the French version of the Scramble for Africa, such appeals were inevitably given the shortest of shrift.

As hostilities loomed, newspapers in France ran lurid accounts of the Dahomean royal house's predilection for human sacrifice. Readers of the March 15, 1890 edition of the prominent hebdomadaire L'Illustration were horrified to discover that "executions and massacres are amongst the political institutions most faithfully maintained in Dahomey," while a week later the L'Universel Illustré marveled at the sheer "multitude of victims" of those grisly practices. The Journal des Voyages et des Aventures de Terre et de Mer was less dispassionate still, declaring that "the institution of human sacrifice in Dahomey is one of the most horrible pages in the history of humanity."

In light of such compelling evidence, France, "faithful to its tradition of generosity and human fraternity" (as Ernest Roume later proclaimed), began to view Dahomey as a worthy object of its global mission civilisatrice. When Dahomean warriors preemptively marched on the contested state of Porto-Novo, devastating the villages of Dano and Ida and advancing within ten kilometers of Bedji and Vakon, the French intervention began. On April 4, 1890, the French navy began a blockade of the Bight of Benin "with a view," as The Times of London observed eight days later, "to prevent the importation of arms and munitions of war into the Kingdom of Dahomey." Battle was joined, and the first of a brace of Franco-Dahomean wars was underway, wars that stemmed from strategic and humanitarian considerations on one side and from desperate attempts at self-preservation on the other, wars that would only end with the overthrow of King Behanzin and the succession of the more pliable Agoli-agbo.

ON A JUNE DAY in 1890, the French 2,688-ton steamer S.S. Ville de Maceio was making its way along the coast of the Bight of Benin, near Grand Popo, when it passed the French naval cruiser Seignelay lobbing shells towards the shoreline. On board the Ville de Maceio was the Polish émigré Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, better known to posterity as the novelist Joseph Conrad. Incorporating his observations of the Seignelay's bombardment of the coast of Dahomey in his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, Conrad described a "man-of-war anchored off the coast," near a place in which there "wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush." It was abundantly clear to Conrad, and to his fictional counterpart Charles Marlow, that "the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts." There, along the Bight, in "the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent." The cannons roared, but "nothing happened," indeed "nothing could happen." A "touch of insanity" could be found in the proceeding, notwithstanding assurances from another bystander that "there was a camp of natives -- he called them enemies! -- hidden out of sight somewhere."

Like a number of Conrad's experiences during his days in Africa, including the "objectless blasting" of a cliff not actually in the way of a Belgian railroad project, the Seignelay incident was presented as indicative of the "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly" inherent in the colonial enterprise. The image of a modern state wantonly firing shells into the African bush, more as a matter of convenience than anything else (albeit ostensibly as part of an overall project of humanitarian intervention), proved to be a haunting one. It was this very passage that led Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham to invite Conrad to a March 8, 1900 meeting of pacifists under the auspices of the Social Democratic Federation, an invitation Conrad immediately turned down, revolted as he was by the "phantom" of idealism. Nevertheless, to Conrad's mind there was "an appalling fatuity in this business" of intervention, so much so that "c'est à crever de rire [it is enough to make one die laughing]," sentiments he forthrightly expressed in his written response to Cunninghame Graham's proposal.

Conrad's anti-imperialist attitudes, as evidenced by his cursory observations on the Franco-Dahomean conflict, or later on the dark forces at work in the Belgian Congo, grew in no small part out of his own Polish nationalism; Conrad himself, as Hunt Hawkins has noted, "belonged to a conquered people." Though he heeded the words of his father, Apollo Korzeniowski, who wrote in his diary that the "history of mankind is a history of the struggle between barbarism and civilization," Conrad recognized the difficulty that can arise in separating the two, particularly when "the barbarian and the, so-called, civilized man meet upon the same ground." In doing so, he in turn pinpointed some of the dilemmas presented by the impulse towards humanitarian intervention. Those setting out on a civilizing mission may feel that "we can exert a power for good practically unbounded," as Conrad's literary creation Kurtz initially thought, yet no polity, regardless of the level of its development, has such a limitless capacity. And even if a worthy cause célèbre could be determined (perhaps those menaced by the allegedly anthropophagic Dahomean royal family), many or most others were invariably left to devices seldom even their own.

Conrad thus portrayed this species of humanitarian intervention as either a cynical exercise of national interest or a matter of convenience in which "firing into a continent" would be accompanied by little more than the nagging sense that "nothing happened" when the shells landed in the bush. Possibly "nothing could happen." As recent events in Africa have made abundantly clear, the specters of feckless, half-hearted outside intervention and of "pitiless folly" in the "immensity" of Africa remain as compelling in 2011 as they were a dozen decades ago.

TODAY, HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTIONS in Africa and elsewhere are accompanied not by the language of the mission civilisatrice, but rather by the notion of a "responsibility to protect" civilians. The phrase "responsibility to protect" itself first came to international prominence only fairly recently, having been the subject of an influential 2001 report prepared by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The humanitarian sentiments that, from time immemorial, have prompted outside actors to intervene in unstable situations was therein presented as having evolved to such an extent that, as Tanzania's Salim Ahmed Salim put it in 1998, "we should talk about the need for accountability of governments and of their national and international responsibilities. In the process, we shall be redefining sovereignty." Nelson Mandela declared that very same year that "Africa has a right and a duty to intervene to root out tyranny…we must all accept that we cannot abuse the concept of national sovereignty to deny the rest of the continent the right and duty to intervene when behind those sovereign boundaries, people are being slaughtered to protect tyranny."

Such ideas are hardly novel, of course. The Hague Convention of 1899, drafted the same year that Conrad's Heart of Darkness first appeared, contained language referring to the need to enforce the "laws of humanity, and the requirements of the public conscience," while the duties to "prevent and punish" crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide have been enshrined in the 1948 Genocide Convention and thereby afforded the status of jus cogens (a peremptory norm of international law). Yet the recommendations of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty did constitute a significant step in a new direction. By proffering that "[w]here a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect," the Commission was proposing a paradigm shift in international relations. The traditional sovereign norms embodied, for instance, by the Abomey dispatch of 1890 were steadily being undermined.

The breadth of this doctrine is wide indeed, and the more idealistic of its proponents have been prone to push its limits to implausible extents. Academics like Jeremy Sarkin have maintained that the implication of the burgeoning "responsibility to protect" is that the "onus to prevent and react should also be placed on those states that have important relationships with violator states. These states, for example China with respect to Sudan, Zimbabwe and others, have significant economic and military relationships. They are in influential positions to affect the conduct of these rogue states. Where these states fail to use their influence they are also failing their obligations." One can hardly imagine the Chinese government being held in violation of international law for failing to launch a humanitarian intervention against the powers that be in Khartoum or Harare. Going even farther than Sarkin, Samantha Power, a human rights scholar and presently the Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs for the United States National Security Council, notoriously argued in 2003 that the situation in Palestine was such that "both political leaders [Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon] have been dreadfully irresponsible. And, unfortunately, it does require external intervention." The very idea of such an "external intervention," an "imposition of a solution on unwilling parties" involving "a meaningful military presence," could only exist in the abstract, and indeed Power was obliged to repudiate her comments in 2008. Despite the obvious pitfalls and practical difficulties inherent in the expansion of notions of humanitarian intervention, however, the responsibility to prevent atrocities, protect civilians, and react to human rights crimes is increasingly felt in the international community, as evidenced by recent events in the Maghreb.

THE ONGOING MULTINATIONAL intervention against Muammar Gaddafi and his Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, enabled by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, has been expressly predicated on the idea of a responsibility to protect Libyan civilians, and as such represents a useful test case for the nascent doctrine. The March 17, 2011 resolution refers to "the responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population," the determination of the international community to "ensure the protection of civilians and civilian populated areas and the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance and the safety of humanitarian personnel," and the authorization of member states to "take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." On its face, this is a humanitarian intervention based almost entirely on the principles set forth by Salim, Mandela, Sarkin, Power, and the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy, in their recent op-ed "Libya's Pathway to Peace," drove the point home by basking in the "unprecedented international legal mandate" that produced the intervention.

It has, as it turns out, been a decidedly limited intervention, the chief elements of which have been the enforcement of a no-fly zone and an arms embargo, the application of asset freezes, and military action to protect civilians but with the express exclusion of "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." It is essentially an arm's length intervention, an act of "firing into the continent" and hoping for an improvement in the situation. The Libyan rebels -- described by Patrick Cockburn as "a rabble even by the lowly standards of militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan" -- now have a de facto air force courtesy of NATO and Qatar, but little else. Thanks to the air campaign, Benghazi was spared the carnage and blood-letting promised by Gaddafi, but other cities, including Ajdabiya and Misurata, are still imperiled as fighting goes on unchecked. Christopher Hitchens has complained that what is "utterly lacking in Libya, still, is an entrance strategy," but the intervention has been expressly designed to avoid any considerable imprint on the ground.

Whether this "time-limited, scope-limited" approach is appropriate under the circumstances, whether it is "shameful," as Hitchens insists, or whether it instead constitutes something more like Conrad's "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil," remains a matter of much debate in the international community. What is certain is that the diffident campaign has satisfied very few. Opponents of the intervention have voiced suspicions about the sinister prior affiliations of various rebel leaders (Abdul Hakeen al-Hassadi, for instance, who was last seen fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan), or the harsh treatment of African migrant workers by rebel sympathizers. Proponents see the campaign as weak-kneed or feckless, and participants in the rebellion readily acknowledge that they would benefit from more proactive international efforts. This acid test for international efforts, based as it on the perceived responsibility to protect civilians in Libya, as opposed to efforts made in the steely interests of national or international security, has proven to be anything but straightforward or entirely satisfactory.

THE ONGOING LIBYAN intervention is hardly the first external humanitarian operation to take place in the "immensity of earth, sky, and water" that is the African continent. In 2008, to take one prominent example, the African Union organized an intervention in the Comoros, Operation Democracy, which included amphibious assaults by forces from Tanzania, Senegal, and Sudan, and, interestingly enough, featured logistical support from both Libya and France. More recent actions by the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire and France's Operation Licorne in the context of the Second Ivorian Civil War, undertaken "in self-defense and to protect civilians" according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, provide further evidence of the shift from "non-interference to non-indifference" with respect to human security in Africa. Despite this change in attitude, however, the Libyan intervention has proven to be unexpectedly problematic. Whereas it was once the dictator Gaddafi whose foreign policy was defined by "adventurism" -- the "ill-considered or rash adoption of expedients in the absence or in defiance of consistent plans or principles," as René Lemarchand put it -- it is now the aerial Libyan intervention that is increasingly being viewed as an act of human rights adventurism, undertaken more in hope than expectation of concrete results on the ground. All this is addition to the obvious fact that sheer convenience has played a large role, with human rights catastrophes in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere evidently proving less attractive from the standpoint of relatively low-cost, low-imprint interventions.

Such an operation runs the risk of constituting something akin to a twenty-first century variant on the Seignelay incident Conrad witnessed in 1890. The motives of the Libyan operation, unsullied as they are by imperial ambitions, are undoubtedly more humanitarian than those of the French Third Republic in its intervention in Dahomey, but the means are not at all dissimilar. The hesitant nature of the ongoing campaign, with its "firing into a continent" without directly addressing the root causes of the conflict, seems all too familiar. At the same time, the differences between the two scenarios are equally instructive. This decidedly post-modern military operation, with its emphasis on humanitarian sentiments rather than harsh geopolitical realities, has only served to widen cracks in the Atlantic alliance, and has led one German diplomat to opine that a common European defense policy "died in Libya -- we just have to pick a sand dune under which we can bury it." The squabbling and uncertainty that have attended this intervention, along with its paucity of results after week after week of bombings, indicates a growing lack of confidence amongst the former guarantors of international security.

Whereas Czesław Miłosz described his fellow Pole's Heart of Darkness, as "a Cassandra cry announcing the end of Victorian Europe, on the verge of transforming itself into the Europe of violence," the modern events that evoke the Victorian-era prose masterpiece suggest something rather different. The "touch of insanity" in the present proceedings is not that of sanguinary geopolitical ambitions, but that of a civilization seemingly unsure of the legitimacy of its actions and therefore inclined to hedge its bets. As Jeremy Sarkin has correctly pointed out, a shift from "non-interference to non-indifference" can "still mean unresponsiveness and inaction," and even responsiveness and action may not be of the efficacious variety. The civil war in Libya has exposed the dilemmas created by that relatively new entry into the international relations lexicon -- the duty to protect civilians -- and in the process has exposed many of the deficiencies of the current international system. As enormities continue to be perpetrated on the ground in Libya, it is up to those leaders who have masterminded the operation to find a way to accomplish their original goals while ultimately saving face. It will be almost impossible to do so under the rules laid out under Resolution 1973. No doubt, as Joseph Conrad could have foreseen, something more than "objectless blasting" will be required.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.