Yesterday’s decision by the ICC to issue an arrest warrant for Muammar Gaddafi, his son Saif Gaddafi, and Abdullah al-Senussi, the Libyan intelligence chief, should be welcomed at both the moral and strategic level. It was the right thing to do, given the heinous crimes of which all three men have been repeatedly accused. Strategically, it was the smart move because an indictment drives home the message to those around Gaddafi that the dictator is operating on borrowed time.
Those who argue this could further harden Gaddafi’s resolve ignore the fact that Gaddafi was already an international pariah but one with ample room to maneuovre. If he was minded to flee, plenty of states not party to the Rome Statutes would probably still offer him sanctuary despite the ICC indictment.
Likewise, the notion that this warrant might make negotiations with the regime harder misses the essential point: negotiations with the Libyan regime whilst Gaddafi still holds power are already inconceivable. The Libyan opposition has repeatedly ruled this out as unacceptable, and this position shows no sign of changing. Likewise, Prime Minister Cameron, President Obama and President Sarkozy have made it repeatedly clear that Gaddafi must go, and for him to remain in place now would be an unacceptable and strategically damaging humiliation.
However, whilst it is important that all sides reinforce the message that Gaddafi must go, it is equally imperative that both the international community and the Transitional National Council in Benghazi make it very clear to others in the Libyan regime not guilty of serious crimes against civilians, that there is an important place for them in a post-Gaddafi Libya if they do the right thing and abandon him. Apart from being legally just, the ICC indictment is therefore a useful diplomatic tool for pressurising regime loyalists and further diminishing Gaddafi’s power base.