Two top government colleagues of Norway’s former prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, now say that the Stoltenberg Government should not have taken part in NATO’s bombing of Libya in 2011. Stoltenberg, who went on to become secretary general of NATO, claims he has no regrets, and would make the same decision today as he did seven years ago.
“The decision (to join in NATO’s bombing of Libya) was made too hastily,” Liv Signe Navarsete, the former head of the Center Party, told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday. Navarsete’s party shared government power in Norway with Stoltenberg’s Labour Party from 2005 until 2013 and she held ministerial posts in Stoltenberg’s government.
She reacted to a new examination of Norway’s role in the UN-sanctioned NATO offensive against Libya, adding that she’s glad it determined that Norway’s participation adhered to both the country’s constitution and rule of law. “But when you see how things have gone since (the attacks) in Libya, which has become a center for terrorism, this was not a decision we can be proud of,” Navarsete said.
Her regrets are shared by Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left party (SV) that also held government power with Stoltenberg’s Labour Party. “Given what we know today, that this was a war for regime change, Norway should not have taken part in the Libyan war,” Lysbakken told Aftenposten.
‘At war,’ or not?
Lysbakken’s choice of words was also a jab at Stoltenberg, who has caught criticism for claiming back in 2011 that the NATO assault on Libya did not mean Norway was at war. “If we were at war, Norwegian soldiers would be legitimate targets, and they’re not,” Stoltenberg said in an address to the Norwegian Parliament as Norwegian fighter jets were set to begin their attacks on Libya from an air base set on Crete. The new report details how Norwegian forces dropped a total of 588 bombs on Libya, fully 10 percent of the collective NATO force, making Norway extremely active in the offensive. The commission’s report released on Thursday notes that the extent of the Norwegian bombing was unprecedented in Norwegian history.
Stoltenberg’s claim that Norway was not “at war” was firmly challenged in the new report, which cited a Norwegian defense department report that there was “no doubt that this situation … is defined as an international armed conflict, with coalition forces taking part on behalf of their nations.”
The defense officials also declared that Norwegian forces were indeed legal military targets, while a former Nowregian general, Arne Willy Dahl, told Aftenposten that Stoltenberg claim to the contrary was “simply nonsense.” The terms “war” and “armed conflict” are synonymous, he notes, to the degree that those engaged in it are both attackers and targets: “Norwegian soldiers were at war (in Libya) and legitimate targets for Libyan forces,” claims Dahl.
While Stoltenberg’s two former government partners are now expressing regrets, Stoltenberg himself told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he does not share them. He maintains that joining the NATO assault on Libya was the right thing to do at the time. He also still claims it did not amount to war.
Stoltenberg ‘very secure’ in his decision
“I feel very secure with the evaluations we made at the time,” Stoltenberg told NRK while on a trip to Washington DC on Thursday. “And I believe the same today, also that from a legal standpoint it could not be viewed as participation in war.”
Stoltenberg stressed that Norway’s decision to take part in the attacks on Libya was a means of carrying out what he called “a clear UN mandate. All countries are obligated to follow up a UN mandate, and then the soldiers who do so are not legitimate goals in a military conflict.”
He also disagreed with assertions in the report that Norwegian government officials didn’t know enough about the situation in Libya before joining the NATO offensive. “We knew more than enough to make the decision we made and contribute to stop the persecution and killings of civilians in Libya,” Stoltenberg told NRK. “And we knew that it would have been dramatic if we didn’t make the decision, because then we risked that the international community would have been passive witnesses to a Gadhafi regime that continued to attack and kill (its own people).”
The state commission’s report on Norway’s participation in the Libyan offensive aims to provide lessons for current and furture Norwegian governments. It also determined that Norway’s process fulfilled constitutional requirements, that Norwegian forces met Norway’s own humanitarian obligations and that procedures stemming from the government’s consultation with Parliament were also followed.
Significant for Norway’s left-center coalition
Despite the regrets and objections now expressed by Stoltenberg’s former government colleagues, commission leader Jan Petersen also declared that the Stoltenberg Government’s decision was unanimous: “If some of the government’s members (like Navarsete and Lysbakken) feel that they didn’t get to take part in the decision-making process as they should have, they had an obligation by March 23 (of that year) to state their objections in the protocols,” Petersen told news bureau NTB. “No one did that. That’s why this was the left-center government’s unanimous war.”
The split within Stoltenberg’s former coalition government over Libya is significant given how the same three parties (Labour, Center and the Socialist Left) still form a political bloc in Norway that’s keen to win government power away from Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s current minority Conservatives-led coalition. The left-center bloc is now led by Stoltenberg’s successor as head of the Labour Party, Jonas Gahr Støre, who served as Stoltenberg’s foreign minister during the Libyan bombing.
Støre told NTB that there is “something to be learned” from the Libya process, but noted that Norway had to rely on the evaluations made by the UN and its Security Council. “It was correct (for Norway’s government) to act given the foundation we had at the time,” Støre said.
Støre conceded that there are grounds to be critical over how the situation in Libya developed when the bombing ceased. The civilian population in Libya was let down by the lack of international follow-up to help build a new democratic system, Støre told NTB: “The permanent members of the UN Security Council had a particular responsibility in that, but also Norway needs to learn from what happened,” or didn’t. Stoltenberg also conceded to the same in his autobiography from 2016, despite telling NRK now that he would have made the same decisions today as he did seven years ago.