Why we shouldn’t intervene in Libya

Views from the five countries that abstained on UN Resolution 1973.

When last week's UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed – enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya and authorising member states to "take all necessary measures" to "protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack" – only five countries chose to abstain, rather than support it.

Given the consensual nature of the exchanges in this afternoon's Commons debate, it's worth seeking out the views of Brazil, Russia, India, China and Germany, whose early reservations may soon become more commonplace. Whilst it could be argued (with the exception of Germany) that they have an anti-west foreign policy agenda, or corrupt regimes to protect, many of the points they make are being echoed throughout the general populace.

So, here is our rundown of who abstained, and why.


Brazil's permanent representative to the UN, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, said:

We are not convinced that the use of force as provided for in operative paragraph 4 of the present resolution will lead to the realisation of our common objective – the immediate end of violence and the protection of civilians.


UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin stated:

We participated actively in the discussions on the draft resolution. Unfortunately, work on this document was not in keeping with the Security Council's standing practice . . . In essence, a whole range of questions raised by the Russian Federation and other Security Council members remained unanswered, questions which were both concrete and legitimate, questions regarding how the no-fly zone would be enforced, what the rules of engagement would be, and limits to the use of force would be. Furthermore, the draft was morphing before our very eyes, transcending the League of Arab States' initial stated concepts . . . Introduced into the text were provisions potentially opening the door to large-scale military intervention. Through the negotiations of the draft, statements claiming an absence of any such intention were heard. We take note of these.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has since said that he is "concerned about the ease with which it has been decided to use violence" and that the resolution reminded him of "medieval calls for crusades".


Deputy Ambassador to the UN Manjeev Singh Puri said:

We do not have clarity about details of enforcement measures, including who and with what asset will participate and how these measures will be exactly carried out . . . The financial measures that are proposed in the resolution could impact, directly or through indirect routes, ongoing trade and investment activities of a number of member states thereby adversely affecting the economic interests of the Libyan people and others dependent on these trade and economic ties . . . Moreover, we had to ensure that the measures will mitigate – and not exacerbate – an already difficult situation for the people of Libya. Clarity in the resolution on any spillover effects of these measures would have been very important.

Of the supposedly indiscriminate air attacks that have been taking place over the past few days, a New Delhi statement said:

India views with grave concern the continuing violence, strife and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Libya . . . It regrets the air strikes that are taking place. The measures adopted should mitigate and not exacerbate an already difficult situation for the people of Libya.


UN Ambassador Li Baodong stated:

In the Security Council's consultations on Resolution 1973, we and some other council members asked some specific questions. However, regrettably, many of those questions failed to be clarified or answered. China has serious difficulty with part of the resolution.

China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, could have blocked the resolution altogether, but because it attached "great importance to the relevant decision by the 22-member Arab League on the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya" (the League initially supported the motion), the Chinese chose merely to abstain instead.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Jiang Yu, explained:

We oppose the use of force in international relations and have serious reservations with part of the resolution.

However, now that the Arab League has criticised the air strikes, claiming they are beyond the remit of the resolution, China could step up the rhetoric. Jiang Yu has already said that "China has noted the latest developments in Libya and expresses regret over the military attacks on Libya".


This is the most interesting case, as Germany was the only EU member state to abstain. It would seem that memories of war and imperialism are still too contentious when handling a situation that actually or potentially involves both.

UN Ambassador Peter Wittig said:

We should not enter a military confrontation on the optimistic assumption that quick results with few casualties will be achieved.

Whilst Wittig stated that Germany recognised the plight of the Libyan people, he also argued that Berlin sees "the danger of being drawn into a protracted military conflict".

Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, defended his country's position:

The impression that Germany is isolated in Europe or the international community is completely wrong . . . Many other countries in the European Union not only understand our position, not only respect it, but also share it.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.