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How Canada’s bombing of Libya contributed to the flooding disaster

Ottawa bears some responsibility for Libya’s many interlocking plights

Canadian PoliticsWar ZonesAfrica

On September 6, the Libyan poet Mustafa al-Trabelsi attended a meeting at the House of Culture in Derna. The meeting was held to discuss the risks that a flood would pose due to the city’s neglected dam infrastructure. After returning home from the meeting—whose advisements went unacknowledged by the city’s government—al-Trabelsi penned the following lines:

The rain
Exposes the drenched streets,
the cheating contractor,
and the failed state.
It washes everything,
bird wings
and cats’ fur.
Reminds the poor
of their fragile roofs
and ragged clothes.
It awakens the valleys,
shakes off their yawning dust
and dry crusts.
The rain
a sign of goodness,
a promise of help,
an alarm bell.

A few days later, floods unleashed by Storm Daniel, a cyclone in the Mediterranean Sea, overran the Derna and Mansour dams. Al-Trabelsi is one of up to 20,000 Libyans who perished as a 30 million cubic metre wall of water, the equivalent to 12,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, crashed through the city.

“A graphic and harrowing situation”

Libya has been fractured into two warring states since a NATO-led military intervention toppled the government of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. This has meant that aid delivery for one of the worst cyclone disasters in recent years is complicated and inefficient. It hasn’t helped that Derna is under the control of military strongman Khalifa Haftar, who has allegedly neglected the infrastructure needs of the city since capturing it in 2019. There are reports that Haftar’s forces stripped Derna’s public infrastructure of scrap metal and other materials in order to fund their war effort.

The mayor of Derna, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, estimates that the final death toll will be between 18,000 and 20,000. His description of the situation in Derna is terrifying: “During the morning, the sun is quite strong. The smell and the warmth of the bodies rotting, it’s really sad to say, but that’s the reality underneath the buildings. So it’s a very graphic and harrowing situation.”

In addition to those who died in the flooding, there is the risk that post-flood diseases will cause the deaths of many more Libyans. Ahmed al-Mandhari, Regional Director of the World Health Organization for the Eastern Mediterranean, told Sky News that “[t]he risk of water-borne and other diseases is… quite high.”

Meanwhile, there are reports that the Libyan National Army is confiscating journalists’ phones or simply preventing them from entering Derna.

Chaos wrought by NATO

Western media outlets recognize that the turmoil of the past ten years contributed to the scale of the disaster, but by and large they don’t assign direct blame to NATO members. A New York Times piece reads, “The startling death and devastation wreaked by Mediterranean storm Daniel pointed to the storm’s intensity, but also the vulnerability of a nation torn apart by chaos for more than a decade. The country is divided by rival governments, one in the east, the other in the west, and the result has been neglect of infrastructure in many areas.”

The question of who brought the chaos that tore apart the nation, and why there are two opposing governments competing for power instead of a single centralized state, is not addressed, but the answer is obvious. NATO wrought the chaos. NATO destroyed the Libyan state.

One CBC report went so far as to blame Libyans themselves for the destruction, accusing the country of having a “preoccupation with war” that “left it vulnerable to epic flooding.” The devastation caused by NATO’s bombing is completely elided, and instead the CBC suggests there is something deficient in Libyans themselves, a “preoccupation with war” that is seemingly ingrained in their national consciousness. As Jonathan Cook writes, articles such as these “[leave] audiences with a false and dangerous impression: that something lacking in Libyans, or maybe Arabs and Africans, makes them inherently incapable of properly running their own affairs.”

The callousness of the CBC report is almost unbelievable, especially given the central role Canada played in the 2011 intervention. How can Canadian media accuse any Libyan of having a preoccupation with war when it was Canadian bombs that helped dismantle the Libyan state, paving the way for the catastrophe that Libyans are now suffering through?

Canada’s preoccupation with war

Of the eight nations that participated in the NATO-led bombing of Libya, Canada’s contribution was disproportionate to its size. By the mission’s end, Canada dropped the fourth-most bombs on Libya after the US, the UK, and France. As the Department of Defence outlined in its Strategic Lessons Learned document: “Initially tasked with enforcing a no-fly zone, Canada’s CF-18s progressed to carrying out bombing missions. Despite contributing only 3.5% of total aircraft and 4.5% of total personnel in the international mission, Canadian aircraft carried out 10% of total sorties during the intervention.”

A Canadian lieutenant general, Charles Bouchard, commanded NATO forces during the operation to remove Gaddafi. According to the Globe and Mail, Bouchard “personally signed off on every strike target during the seven-month war.”

Bouchard took a more bellicose tone than some coalition partners. When the Italian government called for a ceasefire to deliver aid amidst rising civilian casualties, Bouchard flatly rejected the idea. “We must continue to stay engaged to prevent… rearming and reinforcement from taking place,” he claimed. “Gaddafi is hiding in hospitals, hiding in mosques, he’s hiding under various covers everywhere.”

During the war, Canadian planes dropped at least 700 bombs on targets in Libya. Canadian CP-140 Aurora surveillance planes even “intercepted Libyan communications and waged psychological war, dropping anti-Gaddafi leaflets and broadcasting critical radio transmissions, which the Libyan government tried to jam.”

Amidst calls by Gaddafi for peace talks, Canadian officials pushed the National Transitional Council (the opposition-run government body that aimed to supplant Gaddafi) to ramp up their attacks. The Ottawa Citizen reported that Foreign Minister John Baird, while publicly calling for peace, visited Benghazi in June 2011 and “impressed upon the National Transitional Council [or NTC] the importance of pushing forward militarily.”

Following Gaddafi’s overthrow and brutal murder, the ruling Conservatives weren’t the only ones who celebrated. All of Canada’s major parties were in favour of the war and commended the Canadian military for participating in the NATO mission. Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae heaped praise upon the military, while NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel released a statement that read, “the future of Libya now belongs to all Libyans. Our troops have done a wonderful job in Libya over the past few months.”

For his role, Bouchard was presented with the Meritorious Service Cross by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston. At the ceremony in the Senate chamber, Johnston told Bouchard that he “embod[ies] our commitment to international law, to the rights and freedoms we cherish in a democratic society.” Harper then bragged about the fact that Canadian fighters had flown 10 percent of the mission’s sorties, adding: “Canadians should also know that the taking of Tripoli by rebel forces was materially assisted by the [Canadian] CF-18 missions that cleared away Gaddafi’s remaining mechanized forces.”

An expected disaster

There were some in Libya, like Mustafa al-Trabelsi, who expected disaster might soon strike in Derna.

There were others who expected the larger disaster that has enveloped Libya over the past decade—state collapse, civil war, the spread of terrorism through Libyan territory and North and West Africa. In fact, the ruination was predicted by Canadian intelligence officials prior to the bombing. Nevertheless, Ottawa and its NATO partners attacked Libya with aplomb, bragging as they flung the country into chaos and then withdrew, leaving Libyans to suffer the consequences.

Just days before CF-18s started bombing Libya, Canadian intelligence specialists warned of disaster if NATO intervened. In a briefing report to senior officers, they wrote: “There is the increasing possibility that the situation in Libya will transform into a long-term tribal/civil war… This is particularly probable if opposition forces received military assistance for foreign militaries.” Military journalist David Pugliese also reported, “Some officers in the Canadian Forces tried to raise concerns early on in the war that removing Gadhafi would play into the hands of Islamic extremists, but military sources say those warnings went unheeded.”

During the bombing of Libya, Canadian military members joked that they were part of “al-Qaida’s air force,” indicating that Canadian troops were well-aware of the extremist views of many rebels. In fact, the Canadian military had known about the radical Islamist views of leading anti-Gaddafi factions for years. In 2009, an intelligence report described eastern Libya, the heart of the resistance, as an “epicentre of Islamist extremism,” home to many “extremist cells.” This did not stop Canada and other Western powers from providing them with air power and on-the-ground support in 2011.

The braggadocious tone of Canadian officials quieted down as Libya’s tragedies compounded. Since 2011, Libya has been afflicted by civil war, terrorism, and a migration crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of people travel from or through Libya to seek a safer life in Europe. In fact, the situation in Libya since 2011 has often seemed downright apocalyptic. In addition to a horrendous migration crisis, the country has seen the return of open-air slave markets, a worsening social and economic crises in broader North Africa, the metastasizing of jihadist insurgencies across West Africa, and—as Canadian intelligence services predicted—a brutal civil war in Libya that has killed tens of thousands and displaced many more.

Now climate change is wrecking havoc on the country. As anyone could have expected, the fracturing of the Libyan state and dismantling of the nation’s infrastructure have left the country totally unprepared to deal with natural disasters intensified by a warming world.

Aid workers from the Red Crescent perform rescue efforts in Libya in the aftermath of flooding from Storm Daniel. Photo courtesy the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/Facebook.

‘Humanitarian intervention’ put Libya at the mercy of natural disasters

The NATO attack on Libya was launched under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, but Canada and its allies have shown no responsibility to protect Libyans from natural disaster. The civil war unleashed by the intervention decimated the Libyan state’s ability to respond to natural disasters and deploy disaster relief should they occur. In the words of Chris Hedges:

The flood victims are part of the tens of thousands of Libyan dead resulting from our “humanitarian intervention,” which rendered disaster relief non-existent. We bear responsibility for Libya’s prolonged suffering. But once we wreak havoc on a country in the name of saving its persecuted—regardless of whether they are being persecuted or not—we forget they exist.

Professor Petteri Taalas, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization, said that “the political situation [in Libya] is a driver of risk.” Furthermore, “[t]he fragmentation of the country’s disaster management and disaster response mechanisms, as well as deteriorating infrastructure”—all of which resulted from NATO’s war—“exacerbated the enormity of the challenges.”

Taalas has said that “most of the human casualties” would have been saved if Libya had a “normally operating meteorological service [which] would have issued the [necessary] warnings and also the emergency management of this would have been able to carry out evacuations of the people.”

But Libya did not have the disaster management or meteorological services necessary to predict catastrophe and mitigate its effects. This is not the fault of Libyans—it is the fault of NATO powers, including Canada, for tearing down the Libyan state in the first place.

Canada bears responsibility for Libya’s plights

For its many faults, Libya had the highest standard of living in Africa prior to Gaddafi’s ouster. Health care and education were free. Now war is ravaging the country, the cost of living is unbearable, infrastructure is crumbling, and medicines are in short supply—a sobering reality given the risk of water-borne diseases spreading through Derna.

Canada bears responsibility for Libya’s many interlocking plights, but if you were to read most Canadian media, you would come away with the impression that the countless tragedies of the past decade are the result not of Canada or NATO but Libyans’ own “preoccupation with war.”

This is insulting—to Libyans first and foremost, but also to Canadians, who are shielded from the truly calamitous nature of Canada’s military interventions abroad. In our media, Libyans are treated as war-making savages while Canadians are children who can be lulled into subservience with fairy tales of Canada’s generosity and good intentions.

The Derna tragedy shows that Canada was not generous or well-intentioned in Libya. Ottawa wanted the Libyan state to fall. Now that it has, average Libyans are bearing the anguish while officials in Ottawa pat themselves on their backs for ‘freeing’ the country from tyranny. The cognitive dissonance is nothing short of astounding.

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023.


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