OTTAWA – During a trip to eastern Libya last June, at a time when rebel forces were locked in a stalemate with troops loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi and many countries were calling for a ceasefire, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird actively encouraged the rebels to keep fighting.
The revelation opens a new window onto the role Canada played in the civil war – while raising questions about whether this country violated the spirit of the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized international involvement in the conflict.
Baird visited Benghazi, the capital of the anti-Gadhafi movement, on June 27, where he met with senior leaders from the rebels’ National Transitional Council and delivered trauma kits.
Despite NATO-led air and sea support, the rebels had been unable to make significant gains against Gadhafi’s forces and there were reports that a ceasefire was in the works.
Following his meeting with NTC president Abdul Jalil and foreign representative Ali Issawi, Baird told reporters: “Obviously, this thing can’t end too soon – the killing and the disruption of daily life. I think they’re just as keen and as enthusiastic to get this behind them and begin to establish freedom and democracy here in Libya.”
What Baird didn’t reveal – and which is being revealed only now in speaking notes prepared for a meeting several weeks later with his Norwegian counterpart and obtained through access to information – is that he had urged the rebels to continue with their attacks.
“When in Benghazi, I impressed upon the National Transitional Council the importance of pushing forward militarily,” Baird was advised to tell Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store.
Canada was one of the most hawkish outside nations involved in the Libyan conflict, conducting a disproportionately large percentage of the air strike missions and providing important diplomatic and humanitarian support to the rebels.
But while the mission has since been declared a victory by the Conservative government and other allies, many have questioned whether NATO and its members overstepped the terms of the UN Security Council resolution authorizing international intervention to protect civilians.
Such concerns have been cited as just one reason the Security Council has had a difficult time approving any international action in Syria.
Roland Paris, director of the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, noted that the UN resolution demanded the establishment of an immediate ceasefire.
“If (Baird) had encouraged the rebels to push forward militarily, then on its surface that would have been inconsistent with the terms of that resolution,” Paris said. “It’s a reflection of the complicated and in some ways contradictory way that Canada and other NATO countries implemented the resolution.”
Many have argued that only with Gadhafi’s removal was the threat against Libyan civilians truly put to rest. Baird spokesman Joseph Lavoie said in an email that the NTC was a key partner in the effort to protect civilians, and “the events bear out the wisdom of our position.”
Walter Dorn, chair of security and international affairs at the Canadian Forces College, said that in hindsight, encouraging the rebels to continue fighting appears to have been the right decision.
But he noted that the rebels were also responsible for attacking civilian targets. Human rights groups have released a number of reports excoriating the rebel forces for actions against Libyan civilians during the war and after.
The issue is whether NATO executed its UN mandate impartially, Dorn said.
“Did NATO take any action against them, even though the Security Council mandated protection of civilians irrespective of the source of violence?”