How Gaddafi’s ‘martyrs’ could beat the UN bombs

As UN-backed forces hit Libyan targets, another war is being waged on the battleground of public opinion. Both sides know that in this struggle, civilian casualties are the key.

On a bare strip of land on the Libyan coast, not far from the capital, Tripoli, lies the 'Martyrs' Cemetery,' where Colonel Gaddafi's regime buries its honoured dead.

On Sunday, after a night of UN-backed airstrikes against the Libyan dicatator, the burial ground held 26 new graves. Three were for civilians said to have been killed in coalition bomb attacks, among them a three-month-old girl.

Gaddafi's officials claim that western bombing has killed dozens of civilians across the country. The crowds of regime supporters that gathered at the Martyrs' Cemetery were loud in their disapproval of the US and European raids. And Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, also voiced his concern.

'What is happening in Libya,' he said, 'differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone. What we want is the protection of civilians and not a bombardment of more civilians.' A UK official later claimed his comments had been mistranslated.

Arab support is seen as crucial to the current UN mission. Although the Arab League later confirmed its backing for the military operation, Moussa's words prove how fragile that backing might be in the face of civilian casualties.

Of course, Gaddafi knows this all too well, and it means that his official casualty figures have to be treated with caution.

Western journalists in Tripoli were unable to confirm the reports of civilian deaths. An Indonesian correspondent visited Libyan hospitals to find them largely empty.

Even at the three funerals at the Martyrs' Cemetery, mourners gave inconsistent accounts of the ages and professions of victims. It was impossible to be sure whether the three dead were killed by western bombs or by other causes.

And it is known that Gaddafi is keen to use civilian deaths as propaganda. There are reports that he has been taking bodies from morgues and arranging them around bomb craters to make it look as if civilians have been killed.

At his heavily fortified residence, the Colonel has encouraged hundreds of his civilian supporters to crowd onto the site as a human shield. 'If they want to hit Muammar Gaddafi,' said one, 'they have to hit us all.'

Collateral damage
Western generals say that they've seen no confirmed civilian casualties so far, and that all strikes are painstakingly targeted to avoid any 'collateral damage'.

But even if no civilians have yet been killed – and it's impossible to know for sure – it doesn't mean that none will be in future. If Gaddafi's forces take refuge in civilian areas, it will be impossible to strike them without hurting civilians too.

You Decide

  1. You are a UN military commander. A loyalist tank is advancing on rebel positions. It may kill many unarmed civilians. But if you destroy the tank, you risk killing innocent bystanders. What do you do?
  2. Pacifists say that it is always wrong to kill innocent people and that therefore all war (which almost inevitably involves civilian deaths) is wrong. Do you agree?


  1. The United Nations and other international bodies try to set rules for when nations can go to war. Draw up your own set of rules. When is war allowed?
  2. Research collateral damage and the doctrine of double effect. Produce a philosophical diagram or poster explaining what it is and what it means.

Some People Say...

“Civilian deaths are a price that has to be paid.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would Gaddafi try to exaggerate civilian casualties?
After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, world opinion is very suspicious of western intervention in the Middle East. If civilians die, that suspicion will become hostility.
I thought the international community all agreed that intervention was necessary?
Some big countries opposed the intervention. Major powers like Russia, China, India and Brazil all have their doubts. And then there's the Arab world…
Go on…
Arab public opinion is very hostile to anything that looks like western 'imperialism'. Many Arab countries were ruled by western countries at the beginning of the 20th Century, and the Iraq War stirred bad memories. The Middle East is a strategically important region, where the West doesn't need any more bad press.

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