Since he rose to power in a military coup in 1969, Libya’s once-permanent leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi has certainly seen his ups and downs, from the controversies of Black September and Lockerbie, to his post-9/11 thaw and re-entry into the global economy. But nothing compares to existential threat he has faced as a result of the astonishing February 17th protest movement which has driven the regime to the precipice and seized the world’s attention.
Modeled on the inspiring examples set by courageous, well organized, and overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan demonstrators were quickly reminded that they are operating in an altogether different environment, facing a government that did not feel constrained by law, rights, or international opinion. Oddly, the protest movement, which included a Facebook grouping calling for a “Day of Anger” to commemorate the 17th, were not very large until the Gaddafi regime overreacted with a number of pre-emptive arrests of human rights campaigners, including the detention of a well known lawyer, Fehti Tarbel, who represented the families of about 1,200 prisoners who were disappeared and murdered at the Adu Salim prison. From that moment on, the numbers swelled and the frustrations took hold.
Given the repressive media conditions in Libya (a major difference from the protests in the relatively freer and wealthier Tunisia and Egypt) it has been very hard for international observers to precisely document the unfolding situation. However, what we do know indicates an unprecedented level of brutality which has shaken the country to its foundations, leading to what many believe to be an evitable removal of North Africa’s third dictator in as many months (though how long this process might take is anyone’s guess).
The details of the violence are coming to us only in horrific fragments. Following the initial crackdown by Libyan security forces against protesters, which left an estimated 300 dead, the army is believed to have fired upon unarmed mourners at a funeral held, terrorized demonstrators with imported African mercenaries (too many Libyan soldiers already defected to the uprising), and brought the fight to the streets of Tripoli, where troops are said to be strafing gunfire indiscriminately at unarmed citizens. At this point it is conceivable that thousands have been killed. Following the “liberation” of Benghazi four days ago, additional cities in the east and west, including Derna, Tobruk, and Misrata have also fallen as the Gaddafi regime (or at least his son, the once moderate Saif Gaddafi) have retrenched their stronghold in the capital, swearing to cling to power until they are made into martyrs. In what some call an intentional strategy on behalf of the government, the protests have begun taking the form of an armed civil conflict.
One of the most remarkable features of the Libyan crisis, which would indicate that the regime is living on borrowed time, is the high number of resignations and defections of influential members of the administration. A few days ago, the members of the Libyan mission to the United Nations declared their allegiance with the people, and condemned the violence used against protesters. The Minister of Justice Mustafa Abud al-Jeleil resigned citing “the excessive use of violence against government protesters.” The Justice Minister has also become a strong organizing force in the opposition, and has told the media that Gaddafi personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing. Gaddafi’s cousin and close aid Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam turned against him, denouncing “grave violations to human rights and human and international laws.” Massive defections by Libyan troops and influential tribes, including two fighter jet pilots who ejected from their aircraft after refusing orders to bomb civilians in Benghazi, have contributed to the great leader’s isolation.
With even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad strongly denouncing Gaddafi’s brutality (perhaps Iran’s advice to Libya is that it’s better to arrest them, hold show trials, and then hang them), the Libyan dictator has been left with very few friends. But one of the oddest twists in the story is the curious support for the regime from Fidel Castro and among the delusional fringes of the unreformed Latin American left, including Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega (for a time, it was rumored that Gaddafi had escaped to seek refuge in friendly Venezuela). Castro’s brilliant fiction to explain why it’s OK for Gaddafi to murder hundreds of his own citizens includes an insidious plot from “the imperialists” and NATO, who are seeking to take over Libya’s oil.
With even Russia signing a joint statement with Europe condemning the violence, it seems that the Axis of We’re-Against-Whatever-Washington-Is-Doing didn’t all get the same latest draft memo of the talking points. (That said, Russia is clearly terrified by this wave of successful pro-democracy uprisings against entrenched dictatorships – Igor Sechin has even absurdly blamed the nefarious meddling of Google for the collapse of the Mubarak regime on rather the Egyptian people’s aspirations).
A few days ago I was interviewed by Channel 4 regarding the spate of resignations in Libya, and felt that it was important to point out the impact of the potential liability before international justice, such as the ICC, as a motivating factor. It seems clear that there is already a reasonable basis to suspect crimes against humanity may have been committed against the protesters by the Libyan government (we also have an open application to the ICC over Thailand’s murder of 91 protesters by indiscriminate gunfire and snipers in April and May 2010).
Chief Prosecutor of the ICC Luis Moreno-Ocampo has reminded the press that although Libya is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, the ICC may investigate if provided with a resolution from the United Nations Security Council or are requested to investigate by the next Libyan government. That fact alone may be a powerful motivating factor in encouraging important figures such as Mustafa Abud al-Jeleil to hedge their bets and get on the right side of history.
The Libyan public and the Arab media are calling the events in Libya a “majzarrah” or “genocide” of the Libyan people. While the adequacy of categorizing Gaddafi’s violence as “genocide” can be questioned both on legal and moral grounds, there is no question that these violent responses/acts are indeed heinous crimes that are equally condemned by international law as crimes against humanity.
The international community, namely the European Union and individual European states and the United States need to make their position exceedingly clear in condemning Gaddafi’s acts of violence. At this point, it is appropriate to ask: what is at stake if the West does not move timely against the state violence and respond in a credible manner to the Libyan political crises?
The West, especially through Silvio Berlusconi’s Italian government, has used Gaddafi (and his notoriety/propensity as violent person in different to international laws) as the gatekeeper of Europe against the influx of immigration of impoverished Sub-Saharans. As such he carried out the dirty task of turning away refugees without due process and in the course tortured and killed thousands of refugees many of them children and women. Gaddafi was compensated for these services with close to $6 million a year by Italy to carry out crimes against international law – sending away thousands of refugees without due process and in the process committing mass murders. Indeed during the last and 2nd Africa-Europe Summit in Tripoli on 29 Nov 2010, Gaddafi openly threatened European representative that he will keep the doors open if they did not keep their part of the bargain (providing millions each year; None of the EU members protested his threat).
It’s a historic moment in world history, and one that could go very badly for Europe and North America. The Arab world is going through a radical change concerning its conception of democracy and governance, and, for the first time such a change is about creating a political unity that is not based on an irrational hatred towards Israel or a flimsy alliance of abhorrence towards Western values. It is a movement that is concerned with internal problems such as lack of democracy, corruption, participation in public affairs, and basic political freedoms to build economic and social devolopment.
On Feb. 23, President Barack Obama gave a well intentioned if somewhat late speech on Libya: “The United States also strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people. That includes the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech, and the ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. They are not negotiable. They must be respected in every country. And they cannot be denied through violence or suppression.”
But it still falls far short of what is needed. Let’s not forget that weeks before Mubarak’s dictatorship collapsed, opposition Mohammed el-Baradei published a manifesto in Newsweek, sharply complaining about the lack of support in Washington. Responding to Hillary Clinton’s defense of the Egyptian government following the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, el-Baradei wrote, “I was flabbergasted–and I was puzzled. What did she mean by stable, and at what price? Is it the stability of 29 years of “emergency” laws, a president with imperial power for 30 years, a Parliament that is almost a mockery, a judiciary that is not independent? Is that what you call stability? I am sure it is not.”
These kinds of failures to uphold the values that we claim to represent has its costs, and not just in the future relations with the next government of Egypt. If Europe, the United States, and the rest of the international community does not respond appropriately and timely, there are several risks: 1) turning these uprising from a pro-democracy movement to an anti-Western rebellion, 2) turning what has been up until now a secular regional protest trend into a religious dispute, 3) creating a political vacuum which may be occupied by political Islam as a “legitimate” voice for disillusioned youth, and 4) opening the risk that the various tribes of Libya will rush to occupy the political space with a call for a return to “traditionalism,” which will move the country backward toward the same corrupt paradigm that propped up Gaddafi and kept millions poor in an oil-rich nation.
Most importantly of all, this is the moment for us to stand up for human rights before risking a permanently complacency for crimes against humanity, justifying the cynical double standards behind which the worst autocrats seek refuge. The time is now to invigorate international law and serious focused diplomacy to ensure that all leaders of the world understand that violence against demonstrators is absolutely unacceptable in our modern world.