Killed By NATO, Betrayed by Their Government: Libyan Survivors Look for Answers

By Mustafa Fetouri

January 14, 2023

WHEN THE SO-CALLED “Arab Spring” reached Libya in February 2011, it turned into a civil war.

The world witnessed massive protests of citizens demanding freedom in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but foreign military intervention played a critical and divisive role in Libya’s bloody spring. 

How did the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) get involved in what should have been an internal issue?

Accusing Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi government of using heavy weapons to suppress demonstrations, the Western world went to the United Nations Security Council.

The council adopted two resolutions in the space of three weeks.

Resolution 1970, adopted on Feb. 26, 2011, imposed harsh sanctions on the country and was followed by Resolution 1973, adopted on March 17, authorizing the use of force against the Libyan government. 

Paragraph 4 of Resolution 1973 contained one magical sentence that green-lighted all U.N. member states to “take all necessary measures” to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas” allegedly under attack by the Qaddafi government.

At this point the U.N. hardly understood what was happening inside Libya, yet it went ahead and, literally, invited any willing state to bomb Libya. 

On March 19, France, the U.S. and UK launched the first sea and air attacks against targets inside Libya.

By the end of March, NATO took over by launching its own military operation, code-named “Unified Protector,” to enforce Resolution 1973, aiming to protect Libyan civilians by imposing a no-fly zone over the country.

At the time the entire Libyan air force and its civilian aircrafts were already grounded by Resolution 1970. More countries like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar joined the NATO-led campaign. 

NATO STRIKES IN LIBYA

On the night of Aug. 4, 2011, Mustafa al-Morabit, his wife Ibtisam, his two sons Mohamed, 5, and Mo’taz, 3, were sleeping in his home in Zlitin, about 170 k.m. east of Tripoli, Libya, when a NATO rocket hit, at 6:30 a.m., killing Ibtisam and their two children.

Until today Mustafa, who survived, still does not know who killed his family or why. 

In Souq al-Juma’a district, east of the capital Tripoli, Mohamed al-Gharari was asleep on the night of June 19 when a NATO missile hit his family home, killing his brother Faraj, 48, sister Karima, 38, her 44-year-old husband ’Abdallah Shihab, and their two children, Jomana, 2, and Khaled, 7 months old. Eight others sustained injuries.

This is the only occasion in which NATO admitted that it might have killed civilians.

Later on the same day, the alliance’s statement said “NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives” and blamed “a weapons system failure” as a possible cause for the strike.

The bombardment continued and civilian causalities kept mounting, but NATO never acknowledged any more civilian deaths despite conducting some 26,000 sorties over Libya. 

RESPONSIBILITY FOR LIBYAN CASUALTIES

The destruction of Libya continued for seven months.

By the time the bombardment stopped, in October 2011, hundreds of civilians were killed, Libya was ruined and ungovernable, and Qaddafi himself was murdered, paving the way for NATO to declare victory as if it had just prevailed over a superpower.

Eleven years later, no one knows exactly how many women, children and elderly Libyans were killed.

While most deaths are well documented, a precise figure has eluded even major international rights groups who investigated what happened.

Amnesty International, for example, puts the death toll at 55 civilians while Human Rights Watch estimates the number to be 72, one-third of whom were children under the age of 8.

In the latest investigation conducted just last year by Airwars, an independent investigation web site, estimated that anywhere from 223 to 403 civilians were killed by NATO air strikes over Libya from March to October.

I conducted numerous eye-witness interviews in 2015 and think the figure is around 200 Libyans killed.

Most of the civilian deaths occurred in residential areas, private homes and farm land in more than 10 cities and towns across western Libya, including Tripoli; Surman, west of Tripoli; Bani Walid in the southwest; and Berga, east of the capital. 

NATO has never investigated the deaths and still does not acknowledge any responsibility.

Over several years I wrote to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, asking for answers, but no one answered my questions.

In October 2015 I attended a NATO-organized event in Madrid, Spain, where I confronted the alliance’s then Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow and asked whether NATO knew how many civilians were killed in Libya.

He denied that a single civilian ever was killed despite NATO admitting to at least one incident—the aforementioned incident in Souq al-Juma’a. His colleague, Catherine Royle, Political Adviser, Joint Forces Command Brunssum, refused to discuss the issue. 

SEEKING JUSTICE THROUGH THE COURTS

In 2012, Khaled el-Hamedi, who lost his entire family when NATO destroyed his family residential compound in Surman, in June 2011, brought a case before a Belgian court.

Two years later his lawyer, Jan Fermon, told me that the case was rejected because NATO, as an organization, has diplomatic immunity.

In October 2021, in Paris, France Fermon reported that he is preparing to file a case before the European Court of Human Rights as a last resort to get some kind of acknowledgment and maybe an apology from the alliance.

However the prospects of getting either are pretty slim. 

In 2012, survivor Mohamed al-Gharari appointed a Belgian lawyer to hold NATO accountable.

He paid him several thousand dollars but nothing happened and the lawyer never contacted him again.

Desperate, Al-Gharari turned to me asking if I could get in touch with the elusive Georges Henri Beauthier, the lawyer. I tried several times but in vain. 

RESPONSE OF LIBYAN OFFICIALS

The other painful side of the tragedy for NATO victims’ families is purely Libyan.

All successive governments that have come to power in Libya since October 2011 failed to do anything to help them.

They do not seem to think that their fellow Libyan civilians killed by NATO deserve some kind of recognition. 

Worst still, the entire judicial community in Libya, including private lawyers, have for political reasons shunned the issue and hesitated to even meet with the victims’ families.

The latest attempt was last summer when Al-Gharari and Al-Morabit petitioned Libya’s Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate the matter.

Several months later the petition was shelved.

Just last November I wrote to several private lawyers in Tripoli asking whether they would meet some of the victims’ anguished relatives, as a way of supporting them.

I never received any response. 

Until recently, the subject of NATO’s civilian deaths was a taboo in Libya.

Talking about it publically could lead to unpleasant consequences. Libya’s new masters and their supporting militias still view NATO’s 2011 mission favorably since it ended the Qaddafi regime.

They seem to believe that all civilians killed by NATO airstrikes in 2011 were, somehow, directly associated with Qaddafi’s efforts to stay in power. 

Libya today is worse off than it was when NATO ended its air campaign in October 2011, leaving the U.N. to pick up the pieces.

All U.N. efforts to broker a political settlement have so far failed. Last September the U.N. appointed its latest envoy—number eight in 11 years—to revive the political process prioritizing elections.

Abdoulaye Bathily, a former Senegalese minister, is trying to get the Libyan factions to agree to a legislative base for elections to end the long overdue transitional period.

It is unlikely that he will get anywhere, given the continuing foreign meddling in the country’s internal affairs and the corrupt political elite.

Elections were planned for Dec. 24, 2021, but they never happened. Some optimistic observers think that elections might be possible by next summer, but that is very unlikely.

RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT CIVILIANS

Ironically, the 2011 military intervention in Libya was packaged as an obligation for the international community based on the principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) civilians.

The civilian population’s overall situation in the country, after all these years, is much worse than it was when Resolution 1973 was enacted, ostensibly to make Libya a democratic and peaceful country. 

The Libyan experience is a testimony to the difficulties associated with “humanitarian military intervention,” as it violates the U.N. Charter which cherishes the sovereignty of nations.

The involvement of NATO in Libya makes a mockery of everything the U.N. stands for. 

Historically, NATO has never been successfully sued and hardly admitted any wrongdoings in the two other major interventions the alliance undertook in the former Yugoslavia (1999) and Afghanistan (2001-2021).

Almost all major international rights groups accused NATO of killing civilians in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Libya but the alliance never answered to such accusations.

Al-Gharari, Al-Morabit and El-Hamedi vow to continue their efforts to hold NATO accountable, however unlikely that might be. They are not giving up just yet.

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