State Failure, the Security Dilemma, and Libya’s Guns

Libya's interim Prime Minister Abdul Raheem al-Keeb has his hands full trying to establish a functioning government and disarm militias in the country.

An article in today’s New York Times describes a Libyan father’s accidental death at the hands of his son and raises an alarm about the vast arsenal of easily accessible weaponry in post-Qaddafi Libya.  On the night that Qaddafi’s “loathed and feared” son Muatassim was captured by Libyan rebels, the city of Misurata erupted in celebratory gunfire.  Rebel commander Hassan Nahassi, who had just returned home from the battlefront in Sirte in order to spend time with his family, acquiesced to his young boys’ request to fire a rifle in celebration.  His 12-year-old son Ali lost control of the automatic weapon and accidentally shot and killed his father.  Yet the surviving relatives and friends of Mr. Nahassi are not about to give up their weapons:

“Guns, many Libyans say, set them free. And with the future uncertain and memories of persecution fresh, almost no one is yet sure how to give the guns up, even as they acknowledge that much of their former ruler’s arsenal would be better not loose.”

Abdullah Kamal bin Hameda, a 22-year-old nephew of the deceased and now a caretaker in his uncle’s home, is quoted as saying the adults must keep the weapons out of children’s reach, but otherwise must keep them: “It is difficult to put down the guns right now, because I do not know who is my enemy and who is my friend,” Mr. Hameda said. “When we will have a new government, and it is strong and we trust it, then we will give them the guns. But not now, not to the N.T.C. [Transitional National Council, the interim Libyan government].”

Political scientists have pointed out that when governments are unable to provide security (a primary symptom of state failure) people commonly take up arms to defend themselves and their kin.  This frequently leads to the formation of militias along ethnic or sectarian lines, and can spark a security dilemma, whereby one group’s efforts to ensure its security (usually through an arms buildup) reduces the security of other groups, heightens tensions, and ultimately makes the original group less secure.  The security dilemma is more common in international politics, where there is no world government to ensure states’ security (a condition realist scholars call anarchy).  But when states fail, anarchy is produced within states.

Mr. Hameda’s experience is a chilling reminder of how state failure and its attendant security dilemmas can produce tensions and arms races despite people’s best intentions.  He told the New York Times that he “was eager to return to civilian life, and leave war behind.”  However, “he also said he intended to maintain a small armory at his home, where he has five automatic rifles claimed from the defeated Qaddafi forces, until he sees what comes next.  ‘My house is like an army base,’ he said.”

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