NATO’s Libya Campaign 2011:
Just or Unjust to What Degree?

Andrew Wedgwood & A. Walter Dorn


Published in Diplomacy & Statecraft, Volume 26,  Issue 2, 2015. (pdf)

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s violence against the Libyan population in the face of a fledgling rebellion in March 2011 prompted an international intervention. The United Nations Security Council authorised the use of ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians and enforce a no-fly zone. Following a preliminary American-led military intervention, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation sponsored a seven-month campaign, ‘Operation Unified Protector.’ Was the operation ethically justified? Through the lens of the Just War tradition, seven moral principles are assessed in both qualitative and quantitative fashion. The analysis applies the novel Just War Index to the 2011 case concluding that it exhibited a moderate degree of justness overall. Still, significant flaws and ethical problems emerged. While high evaluations were made of just cause, legitimate authority, last resort and right conduct, lower assessments were given for right intent, net benefit, and proportionality of means. The outcome of the intervention is still unknown, but the broad outlines of a moral assessment are distinguishable.


We will come house by house, room by room. … We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.
                      – Qaddafi to the rebels of Benghazi, 17 March 20111


1. Harold Koh [United States Department of State Legal Advisor], ‘Statement Regarding the Use of Force in Libya,’ American Society of International Law Annual Meeting, 26 March 2011:
2. J. David Goodman, ‘Rights Group Says Libya’s Militias Are ‘Out of Control,’’ New York Times (16 February 2012):
3. Efraim Halevy, ‘What the Libyan Intervention May Have Cost Us.’ New Republic (5 March 2012):
4. Alan J. Kuperman, ‘A Model Humanitarian Intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign,’ International Security, 38/1 (2013), 105–136 and associated brief, ‘Lessons from Libya: How Not to Intervene.’
5. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th edition (New York, 2006), xvii.
6. James Turner Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven, CT, 2001), 22–23.
7. A.J. Coates, The Ethics of War (New York, 1997), 9.
8. A. Walter Dorn, ‘The Just War Index: Comparing Warfighting and Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan,’ Journal of Military Ethics, 10/3 (2011), 242–262:
9. A. Walter Dorn, ‘The Just War Index’; A. Walter Dorn, David R. Mandel, and Ryan W. Cross, ‘How Just Were America’s Wars? A Survey of Experts Using a Just War Index,’ International Studies Perspectives, (2014):
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14. UN Human Rights Council, ‘Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Libya,’ A/HRC/19/68 (2 March 2012), 54:
15. UN Security Council, ‘Resolution 1970: Peace and Security in Africa,’ S/RES/1970(2011) (26 February 2011):
16. J. Downie, ‘When Numbers Lie: Why Isn’t There an Accurate Death Toll in Libya?,’ New Republic (1 April 2011):
17. I. Black, ‘Libyan Revolution Casualties Lower Than Expected, Says New Government.’ Guardian (8 January 2013):
18. UNHRC, ‘Report of the International Commission,’ 22.
19. Department of State, ‘Use of Force in Libya.’
20. ‘Libya: Red Cross Pulls Out of Benghazi Fearing Attack,’ BBC News (16 March 2011):
21. UN, ‘Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, by Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstentions,’ UN Doc. SC/10200 (17 March 2011):
22. Ibid.
23. I. Cotler and J. Genser, ‘Libya and the Responsibility to Protect,’ New York Times (28 February 2011):
24. United Nations Security Council, ‘Resolution 1973: The Situation in Libya,’ S/RES/1973(2011), 17 March 2011:
25. ‘Libya ICC: Gaddafi Co-Accused,’ BBC News (27 June 2011):; K.I. Matar and R.W. Thabit, Lockerbie and Libya: A Study in International Relations (Jefferson, NC), 9.qq.
26. Doug Saunders, ‘With Gadhafi’s Death, Libyans Face an Unknown Rebirth,’ Globe and Mail (20 October 2011):; Dirk Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge, 2012), 150–52; Edwin Lane, ‘After Gaddafi, Libya’s Amazigh Demand Recognition,’ BBC News (23 December 2011): news/world-africa-16289543.
27. Yehudit Ronen, Qaddafi’s Libya in World Politics (Boulder, CO, 2008), 2.
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29. Yahia H. Zoubir, ‘The US and Libya: The Lengthy Road to Reconciliation,’ in Robert E. Looney, ed., Handbook of US–Middle East Relations: Formative Factors and Regional Perspectives, (London. 2009), 270.
30. Vandewalle, Modern Libya, 190–192.
31. Alex J. Bellamy and Paul D. Williams, ‘The New Politics of Protection? Côte d’Ivoire. Libya and the Responsibility to Protect,’ International Affairs, 87/4 (2011), 843:; Michael Emerson, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and Regime Change,’ Centre for European Policy Studies Commentary (1 December 2011):
32. Justin Morris, ‘Libya and Syria: R2P and the Spectre of the Swinging Pendulum,’ International Affairs, 89/5 (2013), 1283.
33. United Nations, Charter of the United Nations, Chapter 1, Article 2.4.
34. Ibid, Article 2.7.
35. UNSC, ‘Resolution 1973.’
36. Council of the League of Arab States, ‘The Implications of the Current Events in Libya and the Arab Position,’ (12 March 2011):
37. Fareed Zakaria, ‘Why Are We in Libya?’ Time, 177/13(May 2011), 32–35:
38. UN Security Council, 6498th Meeting, ‘Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ Over Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, By Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstentions,’ SC/10200 (17 March 2011):
39. Ibid.
40. UNSC, ‘Resolution 1973.’
41. Mark Landler and Steven Erlanger, ‘Obama Seeks to Unify Allies as More Airstrikes Rock Tripoli,’’ New York Times (22 March 2011):
42. ‘Arab League: Protection of Civilians in Libya is Priority,’ BBC News (20 March 2011):
43. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, London Conference on Libya, Chair’s Statement (29 March 2011):
44. Patrick Wintour, ‘London Libya Conference Leaves Gaddafi’s Fate Undecided,’ Guardian (29 March 2011):
45. David Pugliese, ‘The Libya Mission One Year Later: Into the Unknown,’ Ottawa Citizen (17 February 2012):
46. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Libya Contact Group, Chair’s Statement (13 April 2011):
47. Ivo H. Daalder, and James G. Stavridis, ‘NATO’s Victory in Libya: The Right Way to Run an Intervention,’ Foreign Affairs, 91/2 (2012):
48. Edward Cody, ‘Arab League Condemns Broad Western Bombing Campaign in Libya.’ Washington Post (20 March 2011):
49. United Nations Security Council, 6531st Meeting, Minutes. S/PV.6531 (10 May 2011):
50. UNHRC, ‘Report of the International Commission,’ 51.
51. David Pugliese, ‘Canada Helped NATO Enable Ouster of Gadhafi from Libya,’ Ottawa Citizen (19 February 2012):
52. Ibid.; Steven Sotloff, ‘All Confused on the Western Front: NATO’s and Libya’s Rebels Don’t Jibe,’ Time (21 June 2011):,8599,2078831,00.html.
53. Tim Castle, ‘NATO Giving Rebels Intelligence in Gaddafi Hunt—UK’s Fox,’ Reuters (25 August 2011):
54. Communication to one of the authors from a member of the operational headquarters staff in Naples, September 2011.
55. The authors’ ‘Just War evaluation of the 1986 US bombing in Libya‘ can be found at
56. Pugliese, ‘Canada Helped NATO’; John F. Burns, ‘New Questions in Lockerbie Bomber’s Release,’ New York Times (22 August 2009):
57. Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, ‘Hazardous Means: Libya & The Ambiguity of Humanitarian Intervention,’ Commonweal Magazine (17 June 2011):
58. UNSC, ‘Resolution 1973.’
59. Fisher and Biggar, ‘Was Iraq an Unjust War?,’ 707.
60. Pugliese, ‘Canada Helped NATO; North Atlantic Treaty Organisation,’ London Conference on Libya, 29 Mar 11; idem., ‘Libya Contact Group,’ 13 April 2011; idem., Working Lunch of NATO Ministers of Defense, Statement on Libya, 8 June 2011:
61. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Statement by Oana Lungescu, NATO Spokesperson, and Colonel Roland Lavoie, Operation ‘Unified Protector’ military spokesperson, Press Briefing on Libya (27 September 2011):
62. ‘Libya: US to Reduce Role in Military Campaign,’ BBC News (21 March 2011):
63. Pugliese, ‘Canada Helped NATO.’
64. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Statement by Carmen Romero, NATO Deputy Spokesperson, and Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, Commander of the Operation Unified Protector, Press Briefing on Libya (26 April 2011):
65. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Press Conference by NATO Secretary General on the Latest Developments in Libya and Operation Unified Protector, 21 October 2011:; Pugliese, ‘Canada Helped NATO.’
66. Ian Black, ‘Libyan Revolution Casualties Lower Than Expected, Says New Government,’ Guardian (8 January 2013):
67. UNHRC, ‘Report of the International Commission,’ 17.
68. C.J. Chivers, and Eric Schmitt, ‘In Strikes on Libya by NATO, an Unspoken Civilian Toll,’ New York Times (17 December 2011):,%20an%20Unspoken%20Civilian%20Toll&st=cse; ‘Counting the Cost of NATO’s Mission in Libya,’ BBC News (31 October 2011):
69. Marlise Simons and Neil Macfarquhar, ‘Hague Court Seeks Warrants for Libyan Officials,’ New York Times (4 May 2011):
70. ‘Libya Crisis: Profile of NTC Chair Mustafa Abdul Jalil,’ BBC News (22 August 2011):
71. Jason Pack and Mohamed Eljarh, ‘Talk About Political Dysfunction,’ New York Times (18 October 2013), A17:
72. Frederic Wehrey, ‘Libya Doesn’t Need More Militias,’ New York Times (10 June 2013):
73. UNSMIL & OHCHR, ‘Torture and Deaths in Detention in Libya,’ October 2013:
74. United Nations Secretary-General, ‘Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya,’ UN Doc. S/2013/104 (21 February 2013).
75. ‘Libya Profile,’ BBC News (4 January 2012):
76. World Bank, ‘Libya Overview,’ (updated March 2014).
77. Secretary-General, ‘United Nations Support Mission in Libya.’
78. Ken Hanly, ‘Op-Ed: Libya Still Trying to Eliminate Its Chemical Weapons Stocks,’ Digital Journal (23 September 2013):
79. United Nations, ‘Libyan Authorities Working to Respond to People’s High Expectations—UN Envoy,’ UN News Centre (22 December 2011):
80. ‘5,000 Surface-to-Air Missiles Secured in Libya,’ Defense News (11 December 2011):
81. Daniel Brode, ‘Rebels on the Rise in Northern Mali,’ New York Times (3 April 2012):
82. Nick Cumming-Bruceaug, ‘Death Toll in Syria Estimated at 191,000,’ (22 August 2014):
84. Kim Richard Nossal, ‘The Use—and Misuse—of R2P: The Case of Canada,’ Libya: The Responsibility to Protect and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention (New York, 2013), 125–126.
85. UNSC, ‘Resolution 1970.’
86. Ibid.
87. Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, ‘Final Communique Issued by the Emergency Meeting of the Committee of Permanent Representatives to the Organization of the Islamic Conference on the Alarming Developments in Libyan Jamahiriya’:
88. Peace and Security Council of the African Union, ‘Communique of the 265th Meeting of the Peace and Security Council,’ PSC/PR/COMM.2 (CCLXV), 10 March 2011:
89. Council of the League of Arab States, ‘Implications of,’ 12 March 2011.
90. Fisher, ‘Was Iraq an Unjust,’ 702.
91. ‘Libya: Uganda Freezes Libyan Assets Under UN Sanctions,’ BBC News (25 March 2011):
92. Dan Bilefsky, and Mark Landler, ‘As U.N. Backs Military Action in Libya, U.S. Role is Unclear,’ New York Times (17 March 2011):,%20U.S.%20Role%20is%20Unclear&st=cse.
93. Chivers, ‘Strikes.’
94. UNHRC, ‘Report of the International Commission,’ 18.
95. Ibid., 17.
96. Ibid., 164.
97. Chivers, ‘Strikes.’
98. Ibid.
99. Walzer, Just and Unjust, xx.
100. Chivers, ‘Strikes.’
101. UNHRC, ‘Report of the International CXommission,’ 18.
102. Coates, Ethics of War 289.
103. Peter Grier, ‘Has Obama’s Approach to Libya Been Vindicated?’ Christian Science Monitor (22 August 2011):
104. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Operation Unified Protector: Final Mission Stats (2 November 2011):
105. NATO, ‘Libya Contact Group,’ 13 April 2011.
106. UN Security Council, ‘Resolution 2009: The Situation in Libya,’ S/RES/2009 (2011), 16 September 2011:
107. Secretary-General, ‘United Nations Support Mission in Libya.’
108. Walter Dorn, ‘Give the Peacekeepers Tools They Need,’ National Post (26 September 2011):
109. A. Walter Dorn, ‘Warfighting, Counterinsurgency and Peacekeeping in Afghanistan: Three Strategies Examined in the Light of Just War Theory,’ in Gary D. Badcock and Darren C. Marks, eds., War, Human Dignity and Nation Building: Theological Perspectives on Canada’s Role in Afghanistan, (Newcastle, 2011), 16–70.