NATO and Libya (Archived)

  • Last updated: 09 Nov. 2015 11:22

Following the Qadhafi regime’s targeting of civilians in February 2011, NATO answered the United Nations’ (UN) call to the international community to protect the Libyan people. In March 2011, a coalition of NATO Allies and partners began enforcing an arms embargo, maintaining a no-fly zone and protecting civilians and civilian populated areas from attack or the threat of attack in Libya under Operation Unified Protector (OUP). OUP successfully concluded on 31 October 2011.

Libyans celebrating the end of the Qadhafi regime in Tripoli
  • Precursor to Operation Unified Protector

    In February 2011, a peaceful protest in Benghazi in eastern Libya against the 42-year rule of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi met with violent repression, claiming the lives of dozens of protestors in a few days. As demonstrations spread beyond Benghazi, the number of victims grew. In response, the United Nations Security Council (UNSCR) adopted Resolution 1970 on 26 February 2011, which expressed “grave concern” over the situation in Libya and imposed an arms embargo on the country.

    Following the adoption of Resolution 1970 and with growing international concern over the Libyan crisis, NATO stepped up its surveillance operations in the Mediterranean on 8 March 2011. The Alliance deployed Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft to the area to provide round-the-clock observation. These “eyes-in-the-sky” gave NATO detailed information about movements in Libyan airspace. Two days later the Alliance moved ships from current NATO assets, as well as ships made available by NATO nations for the mission, to the Mediterranean Sea to boost the monitoring effort.

    After the situation in Libya further deteriorated, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 on 17 March 2011. The resolution condemned the “gross and systematic violation of human rights, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions.” It also introduced active measures, including a no-fly zone, and authorized member states, acting as appropriate through regional organizations, to use “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians and civilian populated areas.

    With the adoption of UNSCR 1973, several UN member states took immediate military action to protect civilians under Operation Odyssey Dawn. This operation, which was not under the command and control of NATO, was conducted by a multinational coalition led by the United States.

  • Operation Unified Protector

    Responding to the United Nations’ call

    On 22 March 2011, NATO responded to the UN’s call to prevent the supply of “arms and related materials” to Libya by agreeing to launch an operation to enforce the arms embargo against the country. The next day, NATO ships operating in the Mediterranean began cutting off the flow of weapons and mercenaries to Libya by sea. NATO maritime assets stopped and searched any vessel they suspected of carrying arms, related materials or mercenaries to or from Libya.

    In support of UNSCR 1973, NATO then agreed to enforce the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya on 24 March 2011.The resolution banned all flights into Libyan airspace to protect civilian-populated areas from air attacks, with the exception of flights used for humanitarian and aid purposes.

    The Alliance took sole command and control of the international military effort for Libya on 31 March 2011. NATO air and sea assets began to take military actions to protect civilians and civilian populated areas. Throughout the crisis, the Alliance consulted closely with the UN, the League of Arab States and other international partners.

    Commitment to protecting the Libyan people

    The Alliance’s decision to undertake military action was based on three clear principles: a sound legal basis, strong regional support and a demonstrable need. By the end of March 2011, OUP had three distinct components:

    • Enforcing an arms embargo in the Mediterranean Sea to prevent the transfer of arms, related materials and mercenaries to Libya
    • Enforcing a no-fly zone to prevent aircrafts from bombing civilian targets
    • Conducting air and naval strikes against military forces involved in attacks or threatening to attack Libyan civilians and civilian populated areas

    During a meeting in Berlin on 14 April 2011, foreign ministers from NATO Allies and non-NATO partners agreed to continue OUP until all attacks on civilians and civilian populated areas ended, the Qadhafi regime withdrew all military and para-military forces to bases, and the regime permitted immediate, full, safe and unhindered access to humanitarian aid for the Libyan people.

    On 8 June 2011, NATO defence ministers met in Brussels and agreed to keep pressure on the Qadhafi regime for as long as it took to end the crisis, reaffirming the goals laid out by the foreign ministers.

    Following the liberation of Tripoli on 22 August by opposition forces, the Secretary General reaffirmed both NATO’s commitment to protect the Libyan people and its desire that the Libyan people decide their future in freedom and in peace.

    International heads of state and government further reiterated this commitment during a “Friends of Libya” meeting in Paris on 1 September.

    On 16 September, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2009, which unanimously reasserted NATO’s mandate to protect civilians in Libya. The new resolution also established a United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

    Ending the mission

    As NATO air strikes helped to gradually degrade the Qadhafi regime’s ability to target civilians, NATO defence ministers met in Brussels on 6 October and discussed the prospects of ending OUP. Ministers confirmed their commitment to protect the people of Libya for as long as threats persisted, but to end the mission as soon as conditions permitted. The NATO Secretary General also pledged to coordinate the termination of operations with the UN and the new Libyan authorities.

    A day after opposition forces captured the last Qadhafi regime stronghold of Sirte and the death of Colonel Qadhafi on 20 October 2011, the North Atlantic Council took the preliminary decision to end OUP at the end of the month. During that transition period, NATO continued to monitor the situation and retained the capacity to respond to threats to civilians, if needed.

    A week later, the North Atlantic Council confirmed the decision to end OUP. On 31 October 2011 at midnight Libyan time, a NATO AWACS concluded the last sortie; 222 days after the operation began. The next day, NATO maritime assets left Libyan waters for their home ports.
    Although NATO’s operational role regarding Libya is finished, the Alliance stands ready to assist Libya in areas where it could provide added value, such as in the area of defence and security sector reforms, if requested to do so by the new Libyan authorities.

  • Command structure of Operation Unified Protector

    NATO’s North Atlantic Council (NAC) in Brussels, Belgium exercised overall political direction of OUP, while Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium, carried out NAC decisions with military implementations through Joint Force Command (JFC) Naples.

    Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard was the overall operational commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Unified Protector. Under his leadership, NATO Maritime Command Naples directed naval operations in support of OUP. Although NATO’s Air Command Headquarters for Southern Europe, in Izmir, Turkey (AC Izmir) managed air operations, the air campaign itself was conducted from NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre Poggio Renatico in Italy. For this reason, major elements of AC Izmir were moved during the course of the OUP.

    Italian Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri from NATO Maritime Command Naples led the maritime arms embargo, while Rear Admiral Filippo Maria Foffi served as the Task Force Commander at sea.

    No troops under NATO command were on the ground in Libya at a