When Humanitarianism Turns Realistic

When Humanitarianism Turns Realistic

Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed:
The MSF Experience

by Claire Magone, Michael Neuman, and Fabrice Weissman, eds.
Columbia University Press, 2011, 250 pp.

On March 19, 2011, French and British forces, with the military support of the United States, launched a massive attack against the Libyan army. The official objective of the air and naval strikes was to impose a no-fly zone to protect the civilians of Misrata, Ajdabiya, and Benghazi from massacres predicted by the head of the Libyan National Transitional Council. Nine days later, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron jointly declared that “hundreds of thousands of people had thus been saved from a humanitarian disaster”—but, they added, “Libya was still confronted with a humanitarian crisis.” This was only the latest in the long list of recent international military interventions led by Western countries and justified on humanitarian grounds. The list includes Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and even, at least incidentally, Iraq.

For the French and British heads of state, whose privileged relations with Tunisian and Egyptian presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak had rendered them blind to the significance of the Arab Spring, the bombing of Libya to defend the rebels against Muammar Gaddafi offered a kind of redemption with their respective constituencies. Sarkozy, in particular, had to live down his embarrassing rehabilitation of the Libyan dictator, who, during his 2007 visit to France, had settled his Bedouin tent, provocatively, in the park of the Parisian residence where he was officially hosted. When Bernard-Henri Lévy, a friend of the French president, called the Élysée from Benghazi, it was easy for him to convince Sarkozy to organize a meeting with Libyan opponents. This encounter eventually led to the recognition of the rebel movement and the decision to intervene militarily after obtaining the support of the European Union, the Arab League, and the United Nations. The French minister of the interior, Claude Guéant, expressed his satisfaction that the president had taken the “lead of the crusade” in Libya, using a term often associated with the Christian conquest of Muslim territories.

In contrast to Britain, where a majority expressed distrust of their government’s motives, there was something close to a consensus among political parties, the media, and the public in France, with polls indicating that two-thirds of the population was in favor of the intervention. As late as July, when the Parliament voted almost unanimously, with the sole exception of a few Communist representatives, for the continuation of the country’s military involvement, this consensus was maintained—despite growing discontent worldwide about an operation that had far exceeded its announced goals and whose princ...

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