In September the Carnegie Council published the Fall 2011 issue of its journal Ethics and International Affairs, featuring a roundtable discussion on the intervention in Libya and its implications for future humanitarian interventions. This post will examine one of the six contributions to the discussion, “The Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention in Libya,” by James Pattison. (It is important to bear in mind that the articles were written nearly two months ago, while Gaddafi was still in power.)

Pattison’s thesis is that the intervention in Libya was morally permissible, but it raises three issues about the ethics of humanitarian intervention in general; the ethics of mission creep, the problems with consequentialism as a means to justify intervention, and selectivity. Specifically, Pattison claims that the moral permissibility of Libya depends on two questions: Was there just cause for the intervention? What were the intentions of the interveners?

On the question of just cause, Pattison suggests relying on the parameters set by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty; the presence of large scale loss of life (genocidal intention not required), and/or ethnic cleansing. Pattison believes that Libya fulfilled these requirements for five main reasons. First, he claims that the intervening forces in Libya did not exceed the scope of the intervention—a no-fly zone with no troops on the ground. However, the presence of French, American, and British Special Forces in Libya, even if they were present only as advisors and trainers, could call this claim into question. Second, Resolution 1973 gave NATO permission to intervene, which made it an internationally sanctioned intervention. Third, the imminent military attack on Benghazi, combined with Gaddafi’s famous “no mercy” speech, and his call to cleanse Benghazi, justified forgoing preventative measures for the sake of saving innocent civilians under immediate threat of annihilation. Fourth, the intervention was supported by regional states and organizations, most importantly the Arab League. However, this support was second-guessed only a day after the intervention began. Lastly, Pattison claims that the mission had a reasonable hope for success in its short-term goal of protecting the citizens of Benghazi, but he also points out that the long-term hope of success was uncertain at best. Pattison makes a point of saying these facts support the moral permissibility of humanitarian intervention, but not the pursuit of regime change.

Regime change inherently holds higher risks than humanitarian intervention. A policy of forced regime change is more costly in economic and military terms, more collateral damage can be expected, and generally threatens the stability of the country and the entire region more than a humanitarian intervention. Therefore, Pattison states that the requirements to justify regime change should be proportionally higher given its consequences. Therefore, Pattison claims that a forced regime change in Libya was not justified. Although the intervention included forced regime change as only a secondary goal at first, Pattison claims that due to mission creep it became the main goal of the Libya intervention. This view is supported by British General Sir David Richards calling for an expansion of NATO targets to oust Gaddafi. This expansion of the NATO bombing campaign made many who supported the intervention backtrack. Mission creep is the first of three major issues Pattison believes the Libya intervention reveals about humanitarian intervention in general.

The second issue is the justification of interventions through a consequentialist point of view. In Libya the short-term consequences, namely the protection of the civilians in Benghazi, certainly justified intervention. However, the long-term consequences were less clear, and failed to reveal themselves even when the conflict drew to an end. Pattison states that the inconclusive nature of the long-term consequences puts justification of the intervention into doubt. if one focused only on the long-term consequences in Libya, intervention would not have been justifiable, since the long-term consequences were so unclear, and were constantly debated throughout the intervention. Instead, Pattison suggests that a different approach should be adopted, one that focuses on more assessable considerations, such as whether or not the intervention has the requisite legal authority.

The third and final issue the Libya intervention raises is that of selectivity. Many have disagreed with the Libya intervention in light of the fact that interventions were not undertaken in similar situations in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Many claim that this reveals the inconsistency of international moral standards and the presence and influence of self-interest in the UN’s decision to intervene in Libya. Pattison disagrees with this outlook, claiming that there should be selectivity, as many situations are dissimilar enough that an intervention could conceivably be permissible for one and not the other. He also says this critique misses its target; instead of proving that the Libya intervention was not justified, these facts actually reveal the moral failure of the international community in not intervening in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. In an August 26 article, Foreign Affairs agrees with Pattison, saying that the Libya intervention reveals the inevitability of selectivity in humanitarian intervention.

For Pattison, the real problem of selectivity is that given the assumption that the goal is to save the most lives with the lowest cost to the interveners, there were many other places that deserved intervention, where more lives could have been saved.  Notwithstanding, Pattison claims that an intervention in Libya and nowhere else is certainly morally permissible compared to no intervention at all.