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Libya and the meaning of words

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Robin Lustig | 09:40 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

Can the way you define a word make the difference between war and peace? If the word being defined is in a UN Security Council resolution, well, the answer is Yes.

You probably remember the famous passage in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be the master - that's all."

So here are two words that we need to try to define before we can pass judgement on the current military operations over Libya.

First word: "necessary", as in Security Council resolution 1973, which "authorises member states ... to take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack."

Dictionary definition: "Necessary -- essential, indispensable, requisite, something vital for the fulfillment of a need." So who decides what is essential, or indispensable, or vital to protect civilians? Is it essential to kill Muammar Gaddafi? Vital to destroy his every last artillery piece or tank?

Second word: "threat", as in "civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack."

Dictionary definition: "Threat -- something that is regarded as dangerous or likely to inflict pain or misery." So, again, how do we decide when the likelihood of pain being inflicted has been lifted? It's not as if a likelihood is something you can photograph from a spotter plane: one day it's there; the next day it's gone.

But of course, it isn't about dictionary definitions at all, is it? I don't envy the poor lawyers going through the military target lists, deciding line by line, yes, this target is covered by the UN resolution, and no, this target isn't.

As always, it's about political will. So the real decisions will be taken in Cairo (headquarters of the Arab League), Brussels (headquarters of NATO), London, Paris and Washington.

There's really only one big decision they need to make: when to stop. Is Gaddafi's defeat, overthrow, or death deemed to be "essential, indispensable, vital" to the protection of civilians from the threat of attack? Or would a negotiated ceasefire do?

If unarmed civilians are killed by allied military action (and it should be noted that so far, there's been no credible, verifiable evidence that any have been), are the terms of the UN resolution still being adhered to? Can you claim to be protecting some civilians while killing others?

Those who argue in favour of the current military action say that the cost of doing nothing would have been far higher than the cost of enforcing Security Council resolution 1973.

The Middle East academic Professor Juan Cole wrote yesterday: "Pundits who want this whole thing to be over within seven days are being frankly silly. Those who worry about it going on forever are being unrealistic. Those who forget or cannot see the humanitarian achievements already accomplished are being willfully blind."

Those who take the opposite view argue that it is always a mistake to embark on military action without knowing how to get out of it; and that pledging to protect civilians in one country will inevitably lead to demands that you do the same in other countries as well (Yemen? Bahrain? Syria? Ivory Coast?)

Last night, NATO finally came up with a formula that will enable the alliance to take over control of at least part of Operation Odyssey Dawn within the next few days. But Turkey is clearly still deeply unhappy about it, and the Arab League is jumpy.

Unless something dramatic changes on the ground, we could well be in for a long haul. And it's not going to be easy keeping this hastily-constructed coalition together.


  • Comment number 1.

    ‘I don't envy the poor lawyers going through the military target lists…’

    As a lawyer myself, and at the risk of doing myself a disservice, I fear you treat us too kindly. Interpreting law is what we do, and without tasks like this we would be unemployed. Treat us with disdain like everyone else does, and save your sympathy for the citizens of Misrata.

  • Comment number 2.

    Robin, forget lawyers, just read the full resolution!
    Resolution 1973 is an "open cheque", "a licence to kill it" is"carte blanche!"
    For the first time a sixth century Tyrant can be legally stopped. This fact seems impossible for the media to comprehend!
    The letter of the resolution lets any UN country attack Gaddafi forces if they use threatening force to preventing civilians marching on Green square!
    Lucky we don't need to use all the powers authorised as 98% of the Libyan people are ready to remove Gaddafi and form a stable modern Libya!
    Gaddafis time will end within a week or two!

  • Comment number 3.

    Colin @ 2;
    I absolutely agree that the Resolution's wording can be fudged to mean whatever Cameron, Obama, Sarkozy etc. want it to mean - and it seems that the French Defence Minister would be prepared to interpret "all necessary measures" as authority to put troops in on the ground!

  • Comment number 4.


    Thanks for writing such a very thoughtful piece for my first newsletter!

    I have another word for you to define, and that word is "civilian". Everyone understands exactly what a civilian is without a definition? Not so, I fear. There are also unlawful, armed, non-combatants termed “francs-tireurs”.

    If a franc-tireur: (1) is commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates, (2) has a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, (3) carries arms openly, and (4) conducts operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war; then he can claim the protection of the 1949 Geneva Convention, otherwise it is perfectly proper (under International Law) for him to be summarily executed on capture.

    I don’t know about condition (1) being fulfilled in relation to most of the anti-Gaddafi fighters (certainly there was one on TV this morning who claimed that no one seemed to be in charge of him or giving him orders) but most of the rebel fighters that I have seen were, at least up to this morning, were almost exclusively still in civilian clothing (without even as much as distinctive armband to show their combatant status) although all were certainly all carrying their arms openly.

    As for acting in accordance with the laws and customs of war, are deliberately setting up defence positions in the middle of civilian populated areas (as the anti-Gaddafi forces seem to be regularly doing) and/or taking pot-shots at armed soldiers from the cover of civilian-occupied houses acceptable behaviour? Especially if the soldiers concerned cannot readily distinguish between a genuine civilian and a franc-tireur in wholly civilian clothing.

    As to the claim that no civilians have been killed by Alliance bombing, we only have to look at Iraq and Afghanistan. Bombs scattered (seemingly with gay abandon) on wedding parties, British troops and even Journalists. I simply don't believe it.

  • Comment number 5.

    Another interesting word to define is "foreign occupation force". It's been already pointed out in the show, I think, that this does not necessarily equal to "any ground troops". In fact, I'd be very interested to know if American military leaders would be willing to describe their contingents in Iraq or Afghanistan as an "occupation force". If not, it can only be concluded they wouldn't view a similar presence in Libya a contravention of the resolution.

  • Comment number 6.

    “If unarmed civilians are killed by allied military action (and it should be noted that so far, there's been no credible, verifiable evidence that any have been), are the terms of the UN resolution still being adhered to? Can you claim to be protecting some civilians while killing others?”

    NO is the answer to first question. No matter how broad UN resolution 1973 can be interpreted, firepower without collateral damage is the proper way to do things. IF USA, UK and France are capable of doing more on their own, then, what is the point of going for UN approval to do less? The war powers themselves know that they have no business in Libya, but sought UN sponsorship to sort out the business-end of a NFZ. The UN sponsorship comes with an umbrella of legitimacy making it worthy public relations requisite. Even the BRIC countries and Germany chose to abstain instead of vetoing or voting against, because they are cognizant of its ‘limited combat with both implicit and explicit rules’ characteristic. If the coalition is cynically going to take the ‘making stone soup’ approach. I say let’s scrap the UN.

    Also; a NO answer to the second question. Even if Gaddafi’s civilians are doing the mayhem to the rebels or providing the non-violent human shield: they should be left alone. Let’s just called it expressions of democracy by other means.

  • Comment number 7.

    Pawel @ 5;

    Agreed; a further term to be considered when contemplating the end-game in Libya is 'occupation force', which brings with it connotations of a lengthy and sustained mission in a given territory that is not one's own. This ambiguity between the intention and understanding of the phrase could therefore be read to allow a swift, rolling intervention on the ground. While this seems unlikely given the effectiveness of the current operation in neutralising Gaddafi's forces (not to mention undesirable), the possibility of such a manoeuvre surely cannot be ruled out should changing circumstances necessitate such action.

    The issues of 'threat' and 'necessity' – vital considerations in the moral and legal calculations that precede any intervention or military action – are of great significance in Libya as they differentiate preemption from prevention (a subject I discuss in my own blog: https://sam-reeve.blogspot.com/2011/03/military-action-in-libya-and-arab.html%29, therefore being decisive in determining overall legitimacy. With these tests being passed, and with minimal (reliably confirmed) civilian casualties, a humanitarian catastrophe and potential civil war have been averted. However, any viable end-game cannot logically allow for the continuation of Gaddafi's rule, while intervention to enact regime change is objectionable at best. Are the Libyans themselves capable of overthrowing their leader and reshaping their political landscape? Only time will tell.

  • Comment number 8.

    Robin: Can the way you define a word make the difference between war and peace? If the word being defined is in a UN Security Council resolution, well, the answer is Yes.

    It's not just the UN, it's the media and our so called intelligentsia that help 'define' existing words to mean something else that can make the difference between war and peace. Take the word: stabilising for instance. Its meaning can sometimes change to its opposite. The US-led invasion of Iraq is considered to have had stabilising effect on the region while, for example, Iran's desire for Nuclear power stations is 'unstablising'. The UN is a pawn in all this.

    Another term is: Humanitarian Intervention that was used during the Balkan wars. NATO's humanitarian intervention in Bosnia was to bomb them from a great height and do little on the ground to stop ethnic genocide. I'm sure there are other areas in the world that require UN help more desperately, but alas, they are unlikely to get the assistance that has been lavished upon Libya. There are some pretty obvious reasons for this and they are essentially the same for Afghanistan and Iraq.

  • Comment number 9.

    @Really_paul has hit the nail on the head. The term unlawful combatant was used by the west (especially US) for the "rendition" programme. I wonder what the the west have to say when the rebels in libya fit the bill of 'unlawful combatants'?
    Which civilians are these rebels supporting at this moment outside Brega?


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