Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 28 March 2011

Nuclear and Libya crises deepen

Two major crises dominate the world – the spreading effects of Japan’s nuclear problem, and the Western-led coalition’s bombing of Libya.  Both crises have deepened rather than receded.


Last week, global concerns continued to focus on two major events – the nuclear disaster in Japan and the Western allied bombing in Libya.

The effects of the nuclear problem at Fukushima have worsened, intensifying worldwide concerns about the safety of nuclear power.

Meanwhile, there was continued confusion over the aims and the exit policy of the Western strikes in Libya, as the allies themselves seemed deeply divided, while many around the world worried whether this had created a new precedent of foreign military intervention that may spread to other countries in the future.

The Japanese nuclear crisis worsened last week.  On 26 March the radioactivity levels had soared to 1250 times above normal levels in seawater off the nuclear plant, giving rise to questions as to whether there had been a crack in a reactor’s core building.

The radioactive effects spread to food items, causing countries to act against Japanese imports.  The tap water in Tokyo had exceeded the government standard for infants who are especially vulnerable to cancer-causing radioactive iodine.

Hopes that the situation could now be brought under the control were dashed.  A new problem emerged.  Experts are still to determine where to put the contaminated water, according to the nuclear company Tepco.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Yukiya Amano declared last Saturday that  “this is a very serious accident by all standards” and the crisis could go on for months.   

Each day the crisis continues and the effects become more evident in radioactivity in air, food and water, adds to the intensity of worldwide concern over the safety of nuclear power. 

It had been touted as a key component of the future energy mix to replace fossil fuels.  But it is now unlikely to be included in the ranks of “renewable energy” that are promoted to counter climate change and energy insecurity.

Another crisis last week was generated by the Western allied airstrikes on Libya.  When the Security Council passed a resolution to apply a “no fly zone” over Libya to protect civilians, many around the world thought the term implied no planes would be allowed over the country.

It soon turned out that this permitted, indeed facilitated, planes belonging to Allied countries to fly over Libya to bomb targets inside the country.

A controversy is raging whether the UN resolution allows only military aircraft and anti-aircraft facilities to be targeted, or whether as has happened other targets are allowed, such as forces loyal to Gaddafi.  Even the compound of the house of the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi has been bombed.

The immediate aim of the Allies, to stop the rout of the rebels, has been fulfilled, and the town of Benghazi remains under rebel control.  But the civil war in Libya continues to rage.

The international anti-Gaddafi forces are deeply divided on goals and preferred methods. The Secretary General of the Arab League, the organization of Arab states whose call for a no-fly zone had been cited as a major rationale for the Security Council resolution, was the first to criticize the Western air strikes for harming civilians.  The African Union has called for a ceasefire by all sides.

Many developing countries are criticizing the military campaign for going far beyond the UN mandate.

Among the Western countries, Germany has refused to be part of the military actions, whilst France has taken the lead.  

The US has relinquished its initial military leadership role, to NATO.  It has a seemingly ambivalent position on Gaddafi – calling for his overthrow from within while insisting this is not the objective of the bombing.

The US is evidently uneasy over the Libyan affair. “We should never begin an operation without knowing how we stand down,” said Joseph Ralston, a retired general who served as NATO commander.

While France seems to have recognized the Libyan rebels as the country’s legitimate representatives, others have not gone that far.

What happens if Gaddafi is able to retain power?   Do some of the Western countries want to send in troops to remove him, Iraq style?  Or negotiate a settlement with him still in power?  What if (and this is a very big if) Gaddafi is removed?

Besides the obvious criticism that this whole campaign was done in a hurry with each Western country taking its own actions and having its own goals, the larger issue is whether the Security Council resolution has been abused as a fig leaf for military actions and goals that are beyond or different from the protection of citizens.

The China Daily, a state-run newspaper, in an editorial, severely criticized the Western military intervention for creating more uncertainties and worsening the humanitarian crisis in Libya and the region.

It cites criticisms from many countries against the coalition for abusing the UN mandate and demands for an immediate end to military intervention in Libya.

“Recent years have seen the West intervening in many counties,” said the editorial on 26 March.  “Western powers do not think twice before using force against a sovereign state on the pretext of humanitarianism.  The Libyan crisis marks the pinnacle of such interventionism.”