The Libyan Crisis: Western Complicity and Why Action is Unlikely to Follow UN Security Council Condemnation

We might wish it was like the Egyptian revolution – and the fact that it isn’t may be making some people avert their gaze – but despite the fragmentary images of horror, the absence of a continuous Al Jazeera-type visual narrative, the dearth of reporters on the ground and the reliance on tweets, we must keep watching. We owe it to the Libyan people, whatever the outcome.

The sanitisation of Gaddafi and his regime by Tony Blair and others now looks like a sick joke. And there was no shortage of experts who knew the real score. In 2009 Professor Fred Halliday wrote that while Gaddafi did take ‘a strong rhetorical stand away from Libya’s earlier use and endorsement of state terrorism’, abandoned the WMD programme and ‘alter[ed] its foreign and defence policy course’, ‘at home, and the regime’s heart, the changes  are cosmetic’. He added:

The Jamahiriyah remains in 2009 one of the most dictatorial as well as opaque of Arab regimes. Its 6 million people enjoy no significant freedoms: the annual reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Libya offer a glimpse of the real situation, one of continued and systematic abuse of human rights. Those who oppose the ideology of the Gaddafi revolution may, under Law 71, be arrested and even executed. There is not even the flicker of diversity found in such neighbouring dictatorships as Egypt or Sudan.

No doubt there were many who wanted to be taken in by Gaddafi’s rhetoric, but Halliday is unequivocal: ‘The official response to the Lockerbie trial and al-Megrahi release reflects an attitude of mind that rejects real contrition or admission of responsibility.’ His judgement on the regime was damning:

al-Jamahiriyahremains a grotesque entity. In its way it resembles a protection-racket run by a family group and its associates who wrested control of a state and its people by force and then ruled for forty years with no attempt to secure popular legitimation.

The outside world may be compelled by considerations of security, energy and investment to deal with this state. But there is no reason to indulge the fantasies that are constantly promoted about its political and social character, within the country and abroad. Al-Jamahiriyah is not a ‘state of the masses’: it is a state of robbers, in formal terms a kleptocracy. The Libyan people have for far too long been denied the right to choose their own leaders and political system – and to benefit from their country’s wealth via oil-and-gas deals of the kind the west is now so keen to promote. The sooner the form of rule they endure is consigned to the past, the better.

Although it may still be too early to say, the signs are that Gaddafi’s form of rule is indeed being consigned to the past, but not without the most horrendous murder, bloody repression and state terror.

The obvious question is: Can the outside world help? Certainly not if all that can be mustered is an approach that says ‘We in the West must help ensure that these countries don’t fall into the arms of Islamic fundamentalists’. This has become the latest form of the Western reflex to control and direct, as if that reflex has been of much help in encouraging the peoples to embrace democracy. As Frederick Bowie writes, Western countries seem to be saying:

Without our help and guidance, the current upheaval in our Arab neighbours is likely to install regimes more oppressive for their citizens, and more dangerous for us than those which they have replaced.

The West’s record does not support this claim.

There is surely something faintly disgusting in David Cameron opportunistically preaching democracy to Arab regimes on his current tour when his

government has managed in the space of a few months to authorize sales of tear gas to Bahrain, crowd-control ammunition to Libya, combat helicopters to Algeria and armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia.

As Simon Jenkins writes Britain can push democracy or weapons, but not both:

If we choose to make the Arabs’ path harder by arming their oppressors, fine, but we should not proclaim ‘liberal interventionism’. If we proclaim interventionism, we should not sell weapons. Meddling in other people’s business is rarely wise. Two-faced meddling is hypocrisy.

But it may well be the case, as Noam Chomsky has argued, that what western leaders are really afraid of is not an Islamist takeover in the Arab region, but the emergence of genuinely independent and democratic Arab states which will no longer kow-tow to Washington and do its bidding.

Interviewed on The World Tonight (BBC R4, 22 February), Louise Arbour of the ICG said it was difficult to tell whether the regime would respond to any international action. But the international community can’t stand by and do nothing. Every effort has to be made to mobilise, whether that means friends of Libya, neighbours and so on, and ‘bring some sense into this government’. Talk of military intervention is very premature, she said. Just before the invasion of Iraq international efforts were being made to introduce the doctrine of the ‘responsibility to protect’ – to come to the rescue of peoples under attack by their own governments – but ‘unfortunately the last decade has made this doctrine very difficult to take root because intervention has been given a very bad name’ by what happened in Iraq.

The International Crisis Group has issued a list of ‘Immediate International Steps Needed to Stop Atrocities in Libya’. It’s worth quoting in full:

[Brussels, 22 February 2011] With credible reports of concerted deadly attacks against civilians committed by Libyan security forces, including the use of military aircraft to indiscriminately attack demonstrators, the international community must respond immediately.

For members of the world community, many of whom long condoned authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and only fully backed the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings once the outcome had become clear, Libya presents a critical test. So far, the Libyan regime has offered its people no prospect beyond submission, civil war or a blood bath; its actions have condemned it in the eyes of its own people and of the world.

Many have already denounced the violent acts, but actions must now follow words. Crisis Group recommends the following urgent steps:

  • Imposing targeted sanctions against Muammar Qaddafi and family members as well as others involved in the repression, including an immediate assets freeze;
  • Offering safe haven to Libyan aircraft pilots and other security personnel who refuse to carry out illegal regime orders to attack civilians;
  • Cancelling all ongoing contracts and cooperation for the supply of military equipment and training to Libyan security forces;
  • Imposing an international embargo to prevent the sale and delivery of any military equipment or support to Libyan security forces while refraining from any commercial sanctions that could harm civilians;
  • In light of the intensity of the violence and its likely regional effects, the United Nations Security Council should:
    • strongly condemn Libya’s resort to state violence against civilians and call on the Libyan government and security forces to immediately halt all such attacks and restore access for humanitarian flights to Libyan air space;
    • call on member states to take the above-mentioned actions;
    • establish an international commission of inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity in Libya since 1 February 2011, tasking it to investigate the conduct of the Libyan government and all its varied security forces, as well as allegations concerning the involvement of foreign mercenaries. The body should provide recommendations on steps to be taken by national and international authorities to ensure accountability for any crime;
    • plan the establishment of a no-fly zone under Chapter VII if aircraft attacks against civilians continue.

Individual nations, particularly those with close ties to Libya, and international actors — such as the African Union, the Arab League, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference — should support these and other similar measures.

Moreover, Libya’s neighbours should open their borders to provide humanitarian aid and safe haven to the wounded and to those fleeing violence.

People throughout the region are claiming their rights. In several countries, their actions have led to relatively peaceful transitions or to renewed dialogue toward reform. Libya’s leaders have chosen a different path, with devastating consequences for their citizens.  How the international community responds could help determine whether others opt to heed their people’s demands or choose to cling to power at a high, and terrifying, cost.

The Libya Outreach Group has also produced a list of measures to be taken to show that ‘nations stand with the Libyan people’. These more or less overlap with those of the ICG.

Last night the UN Security Council discussed the Libyan crisis and issued a unanimous statement which condemned the violence and deplored the repression of peaceful demonstrators.

They called for an immediate end to the violence and for steps to address the legitimate demands of the population, including through national dialogue.

The members of the Security Council called on the Government of Libya to meet its responsibility to protect its population.  They called upon the Libyan authorities to act with restraint, to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, and to allow immediate access for international human rights monitors and humanitarian agencies.

The statement called for the immediate lifting of restrictions on all forms of media and for the safety of foreign nationals to be ensured. There was no mention of a ‘no-fly zone’, which has been demanded by many over the last couple of days, but the situation is so fluid and the procedures for agreeing and introducing a no-fly zone would take so much time that it’s perhaps understandable why it’s not mentioned in the statement.

The fact that the Security Council has discussed Libya when it did not meet to consider the upheavals in Egypt, Bahrain, Algeria and Yemen is partly a reflection of the direct impact that the crisis will have – and is having already – on Europe. Markets have been hit, there are fears that oil and gas supplies will be seriously affected – Italy is Libya’s single largest oil consumer and the rest of Europe gets most of what remains – and the numbers escaping Libya for Europe’s southern shores (especially Italy) could increase dramatically. We may well rightly bemoan the fact that only when national interests are at stake do countries think in terms of concrete action, but this is the reality. Nevertheless, the chances of any direct intervention on the ground, even if it could be justified, are extremely slim. It seems that the most that can be done at the moment is for international actors to threaten concrete sanctions and reprisals that would hit Gaddafi and his supporters hard, both if they continue the brutality and are defeated and if they somehow hang on to power. Forcing enough of the armed forces and the militia that remain loyal to Gaddafi to change sides, because they fear the consequences they will face if they don’t, is perhaps the best way of bringing the violence to an end and starting a transition to a new political future.

Western confusion and panic in the face of this arc of rebellion has become commonplace. And although some Western responses acknowledge that it is no longer possible to view events through the same decades old command-and-control spectacles, far too many Western leaders just haven’t go it. It’s not helpful to anyone that there be international disarray, but the interests of the peoples of the countries in the region must be paramount and, however uncertain the outcome of applying that principle, it means no going back to the condoning of authoritarian regimes.

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