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The Myth of Large Numbers
The United States often uses exaggerated civilian casualty numbers to make a case for military intervention in strife-torn regions
Since the 1990s, the West has justified its military interventions on liberal grounds — to remove noxious leaders who oppress their people or who have begun to conduct policies that appear genocidal. Buoyed by the intervention in Yugoslavia and chagrined by the massacres in Rwanda, the West pushed the United Nations to adopt a policy in 2005 known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P). If the U.N. establishes that genocide is impending, it is mandated to ask its member states to act to protect civilians from such harm. The actions directed include “appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means” that accord with the U.N. Charter’s Chapters VI and VIII. If these measures do not work, the U.N. is enjoined to act based on Chapter VII, namely to use military force. R2P enshrined the doctrine of liberal military intervention in the U.N.’s principles.
A year ago, India’s Ambassador to the U.N. Hardeep Singh Puri offered a robust criticism of the R2P doctrine. Ambassador Puri pointed out that the U.N. uses the R2P doctrine “selectively”, and when the U.N. selects a conflict for intervention, the armed phase is immediate rather than “calibrated and gradual”. The selectivity is a function of those who continue to exercise their power through the U.N. bodies — which is to say that the West sets the agenda for the use of the R2P doctrine.
Ambassador Puri had Libya in mind when he made these remarks. The conflict in Libya opened up in February 2011. Within a week, Ibrahim Dabbashi, the Libyan deputy representative to the U.N., defected to the rebellion and went before the television cameras on February 21, 2011.
“We are expecting a real genocide in Tripoli.” Two days later, Al-Arabiya, the satellite television channel owned by members of the Saudi royal family, began to broadcast that in Libya, 50,000 people had been wounded and 10,000 had been killed — all in the space of a week, with the Gaddafi regime responsible for the lion’s share of the massacres.
The source for this story was Sayed al-Shanuka, the Libyan representative to the International Criminal Court, who had defected to the rebellion. Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy began to call for a “no-fly zone” and some form of military intervention. The question of R2P had already been raised. United States President Barack Obama followed, the Arab League (under Saudi pressure) fell in line, the U.N. voted for intervention and the French bombers and U.S. cruise missiles struck. A few months later, the corpse of Gaddafi was put on display in the streets of Sirte.
The problem is that even in February 2011, Human Rights Watch had not been able to confirm more than a few hundred dead. Nonetheless, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began to speak of “press reports” that the Libyan authorities were using helicopters to kill large numbers of civilians.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates and U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen also spoke of “press reports”, but when challenged to corroborate the satellite channels based on the full arsenal of U.S. intelligence, said: “We have no confirmation.” Such hesitancy did not stay the hand of the representatives who sat around the horse-shoe table in New York, voting yes for Resolution 1973, which allowed NATO to intervene militarily in Libya.
The entire weight of the argument in the U.N.’s Resolution 1973 rested on the claim of “heavy civilian casualties”. News comes from the Libyan Ministry of Martyrs and Missing Persons Affairs that the total number of rebels and civilians killed during the conflict of 2011 is 4,700, with 2,100 additional people missing. This number does not include the dead among Gaddafi’s forces (and likely the dead in Gaddafi strongholds, such as Sirte). Miftah Duwadi, the ministry’s Deputy Minister, told Libya Herald on January 7 that this is not yet an “exact figure” but it is what they have for now. It is likely that the final numbers will not be far from these provisional ones.
These findings from the current Libyan government contradicts, in every aspect, the news reports from Al-Arabiya and, of course, from the National Transitional Council, whose consistent claim had been that tens of thousands of civilians had been killed by the Gaddafi regime in the first month of the uprising. It now appears that this is not the case, and indeed, the numbers are far below the threshold for genocide. This is a cautionary note for those who uncritically accept what comes to them from the media, which have specific interests in the outcome of conflicts. It also begs the question as to how the U.N. arrives at some of its figures.
The U.N. Human Rights Council also made claims about genocide and crimes against humanity in February and March 2011. It now turns out that the private firm hired to collect, but not evaluate, the casualty figures is Benetech, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defence. Not only does Benetech not critically evaluate the figures that it touts, but its own interests might not be as plainly scientific as it claims.
The U.N. had refused to enjoin an evaluation of the NATO intervention based on reports of civilian casualties from its bombing raids (as I had noted in “When Protector Turned Killer”, The Hindu, June 11, 2012). There are no signs that the U.N. will consider an evaluation of the way in which its R2P doctrine was suborned to create a U.N. resolution to justify NATO intervention, particularly in light of these new Libyan numbers.