For nearly two months, the civil unrest in Libya has been making headlines all over the world.
Whether you’ve been reading every article or simply scanning the headlines, understanding the situation in Libya — as well as the United States’ involvement — requires some context.
Before you read the latest updates, check out a summary of what’s happened so far as well as the history of Libya, basic facts about the country and past violations of international law.
What’s Happening Now
Protesters took to the streets in mid-February, inspired by similar uprisings in other Arab countries, with the intent of ending leader Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year reign.
Gadhafi’s son gave a speech blaming the uprising on exiled Libyans and Islamic radicals and said that civil war over oil resources will only result in invasions by Western countries and death by starvation for Libyan nationals.
After news of pro-Gadhafi militias attacking crowds of protesters and civilians, Western countries decided to intervene on March 19. Allied airstrikes enforcing a no-fly zone proceeded to destroy one of Gadhafi’s convoys in the east.
Both US and European militaries shot more than 100 cruise missiles, targeting Gadhafi’s major air bases. The United Nations authorized the strike and the establishment of the no-fly zone, declaring it to be in the best interest of Libyan civilians.
More than 300 protesters and Libyan nationals have been confirmed dead since the uprising began, though some politicians and journalists believe the death toll has already passed 1,000.
An Abridged History of Libya
Once a colony of Italy, Libya became an independent nation through the assistance of the United Nations on December 4, 1951. A constitutional and hereditary monarchy was formed with leader Idris as-Senussi taking the throne.
Libya was initially a very poor kingdom, with high rates of poverty and illiteracy, no colleges and widespread disease. Oil was discovered in 1959, bringing wealth to the nation.
On September 1, 1959, King Idris was overthrown in a coup led by the 27-year-old Moammar Gadhafi, and the Kingdom of Libya became the Libyan Arab Republic.
Gadhafi’s revolution was based on promoting Arab unity and domestic policies based on social justice and distribution of wealth. Gadhafi has referred to this system as “jamahiriya,” loosely translated as “state of the masses.” Gadhafi rules unopposed while power is given to various committees.
Libya & International Law
After the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am plane above the Scottish city of Lockerbie looked to be the result of a Libyan plot, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya. Two Libyan citizens suspected of organizing the bombing went to international trial in The Hague in 1999.
In 2001, one of the Libyan suspects was found guilty of planning the bombing and killing 270 people. Two years later, the country took full formal responsibility for the incident, paying $2.7 billion to the families of the 270 people killed. Following these actions, the United Nations lifted the sanctions imposed on the country.
In the early 2000s, Libya joined the ranks of America’s allies in the fight against Al Qaeda. In 2003, Gadhafi agreed to stop developing weapons of mass destruction, and Libya’s tourism industry began to grow.
Despite these efforts at rehabilitation, Gadhafi is widely loathed by the Libyan people. Despite Libya’s plentiful oil reserves, many Libyans are poor and suffer from health problems. Children are malnourished and anemic. Gadhafi’s name is not spoken on the street, freedom of the press is virtually nonexistent and simply discussing national policy with someone not from Libya is punishable by three years in prison.
- Full name: The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
- Population: 6.5 million
- Capital: Tripoli
- Primary language: Arabic
- Primary religion: Islam
- Primary exports: Crude oil, petroleum products, natural gas