Russia and China have called for a ceasefire in Libya. Now South Africa and India have joined in the outrage over the scale of the attacks
Britain and France are facing a rising torrent of international criticism over military intervention in Libya, with Russia and China leading calls for an immediate ceasefire. Just as a majority of Britons distrusts their government’s motives, according to a new YouGov poll, many, if not most, countries around the world also view the action as risky, self-interested, and duplicitous.
The fragile consensus on intervention achieved last week, when the UN security council approved “all measures necessary” to protect Libyan civilians against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, has shattered in the wake of large-scale US, British and French ground and air attacks. The attacks were widely seen internationally as disproportionate, careless of civilian lives, and extending beyond the agreed plan to impose a defensive no-fly zone.
The criticism is coming not only from leaders with a traditionally anti-western outlook, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who accused the allies of launching a new “crusade” against the Arab world. Leading developing countries such as India have deplored the escalation in fighting as likely to make matters worse, while a growing number of African leaders are highly critical of perceived western disregard for national sovereignty.
The international uproar will form the backdrop to a UN security council meeting in New York on Thursday which is due to review implementation of UN resolution 1973. Last week’s decision cannot be reversed without another full vote. But Russia, China and non-permanent council members including South Africa and Brazil – from the so-called Brics bloc of countries – are expected to express strong reservations about how the UN mandate has been interpreted and executed.
While none of the opposing countries has so far expressed more than diplomatic disapproval of the government’s actions in Libya, analysts suggest the row could have a potentially negative impact on Britain’s political, trade and commercial relations with some of the world’s most powerful emerging economies. The longer the war continues, the more damage it could do to its main western protagonists.
Chinese criticism, largely expressed through state-controlled media, has been particularly virulent, possibly reflecting second thoughts in Beijing about its unexpected decision to abstain in last week’s vote, rather then use its veto.
“The air attacks are an announcement that the west still wants to dominate the world. [It] still believes down to its very bones that it’s the leader of the world,” said the online Global Times. “Iraq was attacked because of oil, and Libya is also being attacked for its oil,” the People’s Daily claimed. And while it was clear that Beijing’s anger stemmed from unease that the western doctrine of “liberal humanitarian intervention” might one day be applied to China, it also reflected genuine unease about increased instability in the Middle East region, its major oil supplier.
However much they may dislike Gaddafi, African leaders have been stung into action by the spectre of dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles and state-of-the-art military technology raining down on a fellow African country. Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, voted in favour of UN resolution 1973 after he was personally lobbied by Barack Obama. But he has quickly changed his tune.
Speaking this week, Zuma called for an immediate ceasefire, expressing concern about civilian casualties. South Africa, he said, “rejected any foreign intervention, whatever its form”. The air strikes, he suggested, were more to do with regime change than humanitarian assistance.
Zuma was part of an African Union delegation that was about to travel to Libya to help mediate an end to the conflict when the bombing started. The mission was cancelled. Now the AU, generously funded by Gaddafi in the past and smarting from another galling example of western insouciance, has called for an end to military intervention, too.
Other major African and Asian countries, notably Nigeria and India, have joined the campaign demanding Britain and France back off. “The measures adopted should mitigate and not exacerbate an already difficult situation,” the Indian external affairs ministry said.
Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, added hypocrisy to the Anglo-French charge sheet. “In Libya they are very eager to impose a no-fly zone. In Bahrain and other areas where there are pro-western regimes, they turn a blind eye to the very same conditions or even worse conditions,” he wrote in the New Vision newspaper.
The seven-country east African security and development organisation, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), warned meanwhile that the intervention was an open invitation to terrorists. “Our fear is that what is happening now in Libya may motivate terrorist groups in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq to regroup on African soil,” it said.
Britain and France may try to shrug off this tidal wave of global criticism, in the way western powers historically always have. But some very influential countries, with an increasing capacity to make life uncomfortable, are now ranged against them. Ignoring them will be harder to do the longer the war continues, and the more people are killed.
While the Libyan intervention remains far from resolved, it has already notched up one remarkable achievement. It has given Zimbabwe’s ostracised president, Robert Mugabe, a chance to speak out on behalf of the majority of world opinion. As usual, the war was all about oil, Mugabe said this week. Western countries were “bloody vampires”.