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The Libyan Model?

[Graffiti on a tank in Libya. Image from Demotix.] [Graffiti on a tank in Libya. Image from Demotix.]

In the halls of the United Nations (UN) in New York, “Libya” hangs like an ellipse. For some, the word connotes a successful agenda for humanitarian intervention. For others, it suggests a disaster. Impending wars in West Asia remain spurred on, or haunted, by “Libya.”

Oil traders downplay the dangers of a strike on Iran. They point out that any shortfall in oil markets will be covered by “friendly” oilfields in Iraq and Libya, as well as by the Saudi regime’s eagerness to pump more oil to maintain supply at current levels.

Last week’s Russian and Chinese veto of the Moroccan Resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council was derived, in part, from fear. Absent strong barriers to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military intervention (justified by Chapter VII, Article 42 of the UN Charter), the violence in Syria could be overtaken by a military campaign, including aerial bombardment, that might result in a far greater loss of life.

Even India’s ambassador, who voted for the resolution, was nervous about its implications. In his Explanation of Vote, he suggested “the resolution expressly rules out any measures under Article 42 of the Charter.” Having once been taken for a ride by NATO countries in UN Resolution 1973 on Libya, Russia, China, and India worried about what they perceive as a second betrayal.

When the Arab League picked its new head last year, some Arab member states rejected the Qatari candidate as they felt that Gulf Arabs had forced the League to back what became Resolution 1973. Last month, Qatar and Saudi Arabia tried to move the League to be more forceful regarding Syria. However, this time, things did not go as planned. The Arab League continues to push for monitors and negotiations.

On 8 February 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that early February attacks on civilians in Homs were “a grim harbinger of worse to come.” To avoid that end, the UN and Arab League now plan to send a joint mission to Syria. Meanwhile, Qatar has threatened to pursue its own military strategy—with the Free Syrian Army (unconfirmed rumors circulating suggest that Qatar, with Saudi backing, has already begun arming it).

Libya’s Ghost

The ghost of Libya interrupts debates on both Syria and Iran. What is revealing about the Libya question is not its marginal appearances, but rather the lack of seriousness with which it is engaged. No one amongst the Atlantic powers asks for a forensic account of what actually happened in Libya before Resolution 1973, what happened in its aftermath, and what the benefits accrued were as a result of military interventions by NATO and the so-called “Arab NATO” (i.e., the Gulf Security Council Jazeera Shield Force). No one has bothered to assess the Libyan model, even provisionally, before setting it in motion once again.

Human rights observers based in the Atlantic world, notably Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, along with Syrian groups such as the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, have catalogued atrocities and produced briefing papers on the violence in Syria. Atlantic-based human rights groups had done similar work on Libya. Much of it was indeed very important. But strikingly, these same groups have not done a retrospective overview of the Libyan campaign; none seem particularly energized to follow up on rights violation claims made during the war.

A rigorous human rights regime, however, should not be intended simply to broadcast atrocities. Its role should be to document atrocities, find a mechanism to bring criminal charges against the perpetrators of the atrocities, and conduct a full public accounting of the social process that led to the atrocities in the first place. A proper human rights regime must conduct a precise cycle of reinforcing activities: investigation, prosecution, and social restoration.

With Libya, the human rights regime has been truncated. Initial reports of the Libyan government’s use of excessive force against its population were reported. But absent any adequate access to investigation, interested parties had to rely upon “press reports,” as both UN Security General Ban Ki-moon and US Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it in February 2011. Some of these “press reports” were of dubious quality such as al-Arabiyya tweets, which grossly exaggerated the death toll in the last two weeks of February 2011 (as I document in my forthcoming book: Arab Spring, Libyan Winter).

Human rights agencies found themselves in a precarious position. Seasoned and serious investigators such as Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International had to do on-the-ground research to disprove concocted propaganda from NATO’s media machine (e.g., the story that Qaddafi’s troops were given the Viagra weapon to systematically rape opposition women). Amnesty International’s calls for a full-scale investigation of crimes against humanity and war crimes not only by Qaddafi forces but also by NATO aerial bombardments and the Libyan rebel army have come to naught.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo was very eager to frame arrest warrants against Qaddafi and his inner circle, including his son Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, but he was less willing to consider an investigation of NATO or Libyan rebel war crimes. When Qaddafi was killed on the outskirts of Sirte, and once the war ended, the ICC barely blinked. And when Saif al-Islam was arrested, the ICC did not put any public pressure on the Libyan government to hand him over, whether for an investigation or a trial.

The Libyan case demonstrates that the human rights regime was only useful to build up pressure for a UN Security Council resolution and for a NATO military intervention.

Libya’s Situation

Last October, Amnesty International published an important report, Detention Abuses Staining the New Libya, which was largely ignored by mainstream Atlantic media. Not long thereafter, Qaddafi was killed. On 21 October 2011, Amnesty’s Senior Director Claudio Cordone said, “If Colonel al-Gaddafi was killed after his capture, it would constitute a war crime, and those responsible should be brought to justice.” A week later, before Saif al-Islam Qaddafi was captured, Amnesty’s Marek Marczynski of the organization’s International Justice Team said, “If reports are correct that Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi and Abdullah al-Senussi are willing to hand themselves over to the ICC, they must be allowed to do so, and their safety and rights must be guaranteed.” Saif al-Islam was captured in November 2011. He remains in indefinite detention in Zintan, outside the control of both the Libyan government and the ICC.

On 26 January 2012, Amnesty released a press release entitled Libya: Deaths of detainees amid widespread torture. In it, Amnesty offers a few details of extra-judicial detention, torture, and deaths in custody—mainly of detainees from Qaddafi’s army, civilians who were Qaddafi followers, and civilians of the town of Tawarga (mostly dark-skinned Libyans). “Despite repeated requests by Amnesty International since May 2011,” Amnesty states, “Libyan transitional authorities—both at national and local levels—have failed to conduct effective investigations into cases of torture and suspicious deaths in custody.” Donatella Rovera, Amnesty’s lead investigator adds, “So far, there has been a complete failure on the part of those in power to take concrete steps to end torture and other ill-treatment of detainees and to hold accountable those responsible for such crimes.”

There has been scant media coverage of these New Libya reports, and no outrage from NATO capitals. And Amnesty did not make much noise about NATO actions during the no-fly zone period in Libya. Instead, a combined team of lawyers has. Hailing from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the Arab Organization for Human Rights, and the International Legal Assistance Consortium, these lawyers created  a joint Independent Civil Society Fact-Finding Mission to Libya. Their fifty-page report released in January 2012 should be a model for non-official documentation of human rights atrocities. It documents crimes committed by the Qaddafi regime in its use of excessive force against its civilian population and in its use of cruel practices such as “container detention centers” in Khoms and mass killings of prisoners in Yarmouk.

The joint mission also found extensive evidence of crimes by the rebel forces and the new Libyan regime, notably killings of Qaddafi fighters who had been detained (including Qaddafi himself), forcible detention and torture of pro-Qaddafi civilians at Sibrata and Zawiya, torture and forcible displacement of dark-skinned Libyans and migrants from other parts of Africa. Finally, the fact-finding team found evidence of potential war crimes by NATO, including the targeting of civilian areas such as schools, colleges, and food distribution centers, as well as a 15 September 2011 incident in Sirte, where approximately forty-seven civilians were killed in a NATO strike.

It is on the point of NATO’s war crimes that the report offers a sobering assessment. UN Resolution 1973 asked member states (i.e., NATO members) to take “all necessary measures.” The report wonders about the “precise meaning” of the term “all necessary measures,” given that the “choice of certain targets, such as a regional food warehouse, raise prima facie questions regarding the role of such attacks with respect to the protection of civilians.” The fact-finding mission further believed that:

“NATO’s compliance with the terms of Security Council Resolution 1973 must be evaluated in light of the requirements of international law and the UN Charter; of particular concern in this regard, is the ambiguity present in the text of the Resolution. This is an issue of critical concern given the implications for future Security Council mandated operations.”

So far, there has neither been a public statement about any internal investigation by NATO nor has there been any independent investigation of war crimes with NATO’s cooperation.

On 21 November 2011, US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, went to Tripoli to visit a warehouse that the Qaddafi regime had used as a prison and torture chamber (similar to those utilized by the United States and United Kingdom for their al-Qaeda “detainees” outsourced to Libya). She rightly called the warehouse “an atrocity committed by the Qaddafi regime, as it was collapsing.” But Rice said nothing about atrocities committed by NATO and/or Libyan rebels. She also did not mention anything about the need to conduct a proper account of human rights violations and pursue judicial processes if necessary. The idea of “atrocity” was sufficient to power up the NATO airplanes and attack Libya, but it had no other life. This reduces the human rights regime to an imperative of imperialism. That Rice called the Russian and Chinese vetoes on the Syria resolution “disgusting” should be put in this context.

Rights to Profit

Human rights organizations have been in agreement that the judicial apparatus in Libya is distressed, and that the country’s governing authority has no monopoly over violence. The new Libyan state is not yet a functioning entity. Nonetheless, certain aspects of the state apparatus, including the Central Bank of Libya, seem to be formulating policies absent any popular or constitutional mandate.

At the same time that the Independent Civil Society Fact-Finding Mission published its revealing report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released its own preliminary findings: Libya–Concluding Statement of the 2012 Staff Visit. According to the IMF, Libya’s transitional government should be encouraged to: (1) end the provision of universal subsidies, particularly for fuel; (2) reform the public sector, mainly by reducing wages since “a high level of public sector wages will reduce the incentive for individuals to seek private sector employment”); and (3) enact institutional reforms “to improve the business environment, deepen the domestic financial system, and clear the path for the development of a competitive private sector.”

Clearly, major changes to the political economy are underfoot in Libya, outside the gaze of international media.

Lessons from the Libyan Model

To allow “Libya” to become the panacea for Syria without a sense of what the Libyan Model meant for that country is shortsighted. Equally, to allow “human rights” to be reduced to a war cry is a travesty. The exacting tradition of investigation, prosecution, and social restoration is essential to the elaboration of any human rights regime. Even so, one must extend the regime beyond the mere defense of people from armed violence. It must include all those social and economic rights that are going to be whittled away by the IMF’s interventions.

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