“Libya lurches towards full blown civil war.” “Civil war looms.” “Predictions of a bloody civil war in Libya.” These are some recent headlines on the escalating Libyan conflict. But if Libya is heading towards civil war, the implication is that the present situation is something else. If not civil war, what is it? When does it become civil war? And who decides?

Working definitions of civil war have been the subject of much scholarly debate. Broadly there are two main criteria. First, most academics agree that the conflict must be between groups from the same country, and combat must be for political or territorial control. Some experts also stipulate that the conflict must be between a sovereign government and a clearly organised rebel group. At least one academic insists that both sides must wear uniforms.

Evidently there is some flexibility in this first criterion, but most academics would agree that the current Libyan conflict qualifies. The second generally accepted measure is one of scale — specifically that of the conflict’s death toll.

While there are again some variations, the standard definition of a civil war requires a minimum of 1000 combat-related casualties. In addition, at least 100 deaths must have been suffered by each side. These apparently arbitrary figures are included to distinguish civil wars from minor insurgencies, civil unrest or one-sided government repression.

So, based on the scholarly definition of civil war, the Libyan conflict can certainly be described as on the cusp. With the figure of 1000 dead as the qualifying threshold, the Libya situation has either just developed into civil war, or will do so very shortly.

Of course, for Libyan civilians being bombarded by military planes the situation on the ground may very well feel like civil war regardless of how many of their countrymen have been killed. Defining a civil war by scale is a necessary distinction — but the exclusive use of death toll can throw up some anomalies.

The situation in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is a good example. Despite rebel forces holding large swathes of territory and fleeing refugees numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the death toll is officially well under five hundred. Until there are 1000 combat-related deaths, Cote d’Ivoire’s conflict remains formally a political crisis.

The issue is not simply theoretical. As in the 2006 debate of the status of civil war in Iraq, the issue of classification can have serious political and practical ramifications. In the case of Libya and Cote d’Ivoire, the question of civil war may have an impact if and when the question of international intervention is officially raised.

Under international law the UN Security Council is able to authorise the use of force against a sovereign state when the circumstances demand such action. But gaining support for such a move is notoriously difficult. The question of whether the Libyan or Ivorian conflicts are classified as civil war may well play a role in negotiations.

It is one thing to intervene when a government is using excessive force and repression on its own people. Entering an acknowledged civil war in support of a rebellion against a recognised — albeit discredited — government may be easier to construe as an illegitimate intervention. For members of the Security Council who wish to avoid direct military interference the civil war may be a convenient sticking point.

Peter Fray

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