Banghazi, Libya, on February 28, 2011. Photo Al Jazeera/Flickr.

The brutal massacres of civilians in Libya at the order of the country’s dictator, Moammar Gaddafi, have shocked the world. His air force has carried out air strikes against unarmed civilians. On Feb. 25, Gaddafi followers aimed murderous fire at anti-government protests in his last stronghold, Tripoli. The government declares its intention of reconquering the country in civil war.

What can we in Canada do to end the killings?

On Feb. 26, the United Nations Security Council voted for sanctions against the Libyan regime, including an arms embargo and the freezing of assets belonging to Gadhafi and his family. These measures are hardly more than cosmetic, serving to polish up great-power credentials.

Four days earlier, the New Democratic Party called for stronger action, advocating that Canada press the United Nations to “establish a no-fly zone in Libya’s airspace.” 

The “no-fly” proposal conjures up the vision of a protective hand stretched over Libya’s troubled skies. But as Robert Dreyfuss commented in the Nation Feb. 23, it is a dangerous idea.

“A no-fly zone is worthless unless the United States is prepared to back it up with overwhelming military force,” Dreyfuss said. In other words, U.S. fighters would invade Libyan airspace and shoot down any aircraft they find there. A no-fly zone is an act of war.

We know the logic of such actions from Iraq, where a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone was an initial step toward a murderous all-out assault.

Significantly, few calls for military intervention have been heard from Libya, a symptom of the imperialists’ lack of influence in an insurgent movement that seems mindful of the need to protect national sovereignty.


Nor were such calls made when Libyan-Canadians and their supporters rallied in Vancouver and Toronto Feb. 26. Some of the signs carried by the 500 Toronto protesters read, “No Libyan blood for Libyan oil,” and “Freedom for the Arab world; kick out dictators.” Actions also took place in at least seven other cities.

A statement by the Toronto Arab Solidarity Committee, organizer of the action there, said, “It is imperative that no military intervention is undertaken under the pretext of protecting the Libyan people… Decisions to support Libyans must be based on the demands of Libyans themselves and not on the agendas of international alliances.” TASC consists of about a dozen Arab-Canadian organizations as well as Toronto Stop the War Coalition.

Similar actions took place in seven other cities.

Derrick O’Keefe, an organizer of the Vancouver action and co-chair of the Canadian Peace Alliance, said the CPA “wanted to make clear that we would strongly warn against … any kind of NATO military intervention.” Sending in NATO “would be like calling the arsonist to put out the fire,” O’Keefe told this writer. He pointed to the example of Iraq, where “the oil fields were protected while hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed.”

Some writers have suggested that concern with intervention is misplaced. “We don’t believe, truly, that NATO is going to invade Libya,” write Santiago Alba Rico and Alma Allende in Rebelión. Raising this spectre “has the effect of entangling and blurring the anti-imperialist camp.” The authors enumerate the Gadhafi regime’s many recent services to imperialism, including its active participation in George Bush’s “war on terror” and setting up “concentration camps where thousands of Africans headed for Europe are held.”

Alba Rico and Allende have their facts right but draw the wrong conclusion.

In an earlier period, the imperialist powers were at odds with the Gadhafi government, vilifying and harassing it. Indeed, in 1986 the British and U.S. governments carried out a brutal airstrike against the country, in which 60 Libyans were killed and 40 aircraft destroyed. But those days ended long ago. In recent years, the Gadhafi regime has been on the best of terms with the NATO powers.

Canadian complicity

Canada has long been complicit in supporting the Gaddafi regime — in fact, Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin has been building a $275-million jail in Tripoli.

According to U.S. State Department cables revealed by Wikileaks, Petro-Canada paid Gadhafi and his cronies a $1-billion “signing bonus” to obtain rights to extract Libyan oil for 30 years. These rights now belong to Suncor, one of Canada’s largest energy companies. 

It is not the Gadhafi regime that worries Stephen Harper and his allies, but a revolutionary people’s movement aiming to overthrow the dictatorship. To the NATO powers, that spells “instability” and an insecure oil supply. If they intervene, it will be in an attempt to quell the insurgent movement and reassert control in the guise of a new client regime. And Gadhafi’s murderous war against his people, if it continues, offers the NATO powers an opening for such an intervention.

As the British Stop the War Coalition notes, “Such interference over the last century is the root of the region’s troubles…. The future of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and all the other states facing popular uprisings must be determined by the people of these countries alone.” 

So far, the Libyan protesters have showed great courage and resourcefulness, winning control over a large part of the country.

The Libyan insurgents have not yet enjoyed the political freedom to chart a new course for their country. The immediate results of their struggle are unpredictable. But the broader significance of their movement is already clear. It forms part of the great rising of Arab peoples, whose aims are democracy, human rights, popular sovereignty, and a chance to struggle for social justice.

Their victory in this difficult struggle would give a mighty impetus to the movements for liberation throughout the region.

The Arab revolution has already changed course of history. It is this great uprising, not the initiatives of Canadian and allied governments, that points toward a better future for the Arab peoples and the world. The Libyan and other Arab insurgents deserve our full support.

John Riddell is a Toronto-based activist and co-editor of Socialist Voice