New opinion polls, economic statistics and human rights reports from Libya point to one conclusion: western policy to keep Libya weak and divided is a resounding success.
A poll released by Gallup this week demonstrates the increasing desperation facing Libyans even before the latest round of fighting began last month. The poll, based on telephone interviews with over a thousand Libyans conducted over July and August last year, reveals that record numbers of Libyans lacked money for food and shelter over the previous year, and a record low are deemed to be ‘thriving’. 43% said they lacked money for food at some point over the previous year – a number which has been consistently rising since the annual poll began in 2015 – whilst 37% said they had lacked money for shelter, almost double the 22% recorded in 2012. Respondents were then asked to give a rating between nought and ten for both their life today, and their expected life in five years, and were classified as ‘thriving’ if they gave an answer of at least seven and eight respectively. Only 19% did so.
A majority of 52% said their local economies were getting worse, quadruple the 2012 figure of 13%. Most damningly, perhaps, over a third of Libyans now say they would like to leave their homeland permanently.
The Gallup poll, however, is but the latest in a plethora of reports detailing Libya’s unrelenting decline since 2011. The UN’s Human Development Index, published annually, ranks 169 countries according to measures such as life expectancy, access to education, and healthcare. Under Gaddafi’s rule, Libya stood at an impressive 53 on the scale, in the top third of countries worldwide and officially classified as ‘high human development’, with the longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality rates on the African continent. Since then life expectancy has dropped three years, from 74.5 to 71.6, under pressure of ongoing warfare and the collapse of public services, whilst the country’s overall ranking has dropped 55 places to 108, almost into the bottom third of countries overall.
Another indicator of decine comes from the UK Foreign Office’s biannual economic factsheet. The latest, published last month, reveals that Libya has an annual inflation rate of 23.1% – that is, its currency is losing a quarter of its value every year – whilst it ranks 186 out of 189 countries for ‘ease of doing business’, one place ahead of Yemen. Per capita income has fallen every year since 2011, and now stands at $6,692, a little over half its pre-invasion level of $12,250.
Amnesty International’s annual report makes even more devastating reading. In 2010, their Libya report did not record any ‘grave’ or ‘serious’ human rights violations, such as torture or extrajudicial killing, that year. Fast forward to 2018, however, and we read that “torture was widespread in prisons, where thousands were held without charge,” adding that “many detainees had been held since 2011 with no judicial oversight or means to challenge the legality of their detention.” In particular, “migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers were subjected to widespread and systematic serious human rights violations and abuses at the hands of state officials”. The report adds that “Up to 20,000 people were held in detention centres in Libya run by…the Ministry of the Interior of the GNA. They were held in horrific conditions of extreme overcrowding, lacking access to medical care and adequate nutrition, and systematically subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence, severe beatings and extortion.” In addition, “armed groups and criminal gangs ran thousands of illicit holding sites throughout the country as part of a lucrative people-smuggling business”, some of whom, it noted, were selling off their detainees in open slave markets. Meanwhile “armed groups and militias abducted and unlawfully detained hundreds of people because of their opinions, origin, perceived political affiliations or perceived wealth,” including “political activists, lawyers, human rights activists and other civilians”. Whereas the 2010 report noted that “freedom of expression, association and assembly continued to be severely curtailed”, there was no suggestion that journalists’ lives were at risk. By 2018, however, “Journalists, activists and human rights defenders were particularly vulnerable to harassment, attacks and enforced disappearance by armed groups and militias aligned with various authorities of rival governments.” Overall, “an environment of impunity continued to prevail, leaving perpetrators of serious abuses emboldened and without fear of accountability”.
This massive deterioration of all aspects of Libyan society since NATO’s 2011 war – whether in terms of social welfare, economic conditions or basic human rights – has necessitated some serious intellectual contortions by its defenders. According to them, Libya’s collapse has nothing to do with NATO’s destruction of its state apparatus, but rather result from either Gaddafi himself (still causing havoc from beyond the grave) or from subsequent ‘mistakes’. Florence Gaub, for example – who, in a clear nod to her colonial intellectual lineage, calls herself ‘Florence of Arabia’ – argues in her book, The Cauldron, that “NATO’s intervention in Libya was soundly conceived and executed”. The reversal of all development indicators since 2011 is, for Gaub and co, attributable to policies before 2011 and after 2011, but never to the fateful events of 2011 themself; indeed, for such analysts, the intervention set the country up for a success which it foolishly squandered.
Yet the link between that intervention and Libya’s current problems is hard to deny: after all, it was precisely NATO’s war that destroyed the state’s security and public service infrastructure, and left power fragmented in the hands of the rival militias now slugging it out. Whilst Gaub and others are right that decisions taken since then – such as the ill-fated move in 2012 to pay militia wages without integrating them into a unified command structure, or the law the same year granting effective immunity from prosecution to militiamen – have helped entrench instability and factional rivalries, the reality is that this is not a divergence from, but rather a continuation of, 2011. When it comes to western policy towards the global South, Clausewitz gets inverted: politics truly is war by other means. And the aim of that war – as was clear in 2011 and has since become ever clearer – was nothing less than the permanent prevention of Libya’s re-emergence as a strong, unified, independent state.