Giving peace no chance in Libya

Curtis Doebbler , Saturday 23 Apr 2011

Rather than taking sides in a civil war, the West has favoured force as the means of change in Libya

It is easy to look at a leader who has been in power for more than 40 years and suggest it is time for him to go. Indeed, modern international law requires that all citizens be given the chance to participate in their government, although it does not necessary exclude rulers for life.

The most important international relevance of recent events in Libya, however, is that they are not mainly about the people of Libya rising up. While many people suggest that the “uprising” in Libya started as a peaceful protest by common people in Libya, as an eyewitness I saw heavy military arms used with greater ferocity against the government, before there were any allegations that the government had used disproportionate military force.

Who started using force is less relevant than how it is being used today. Even if the government used force first, an unjustifiable act against its own people, it does not justify the international community using force against Libya and slaughtering an uncounted number of Libyans who are civilians, women, children and military.

Only a fool could think that between one and two hundreds sorties dropping megaton bombs on cities would not kill hundreds or thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people, including civilians. In fact in every war in modern history, including the most recent wars against the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, it is civilians who have been the greatest proportion of casualties without exception.

Usually these civilian casualties are unseen. As one US soldier explained to me in Iraq in 1991, “When we drop bombs on people there are no casualties because there is nothing left to verify someone was even there.” I have seen firsthand the deadly impact of bombs and of “carpet bombing” as NATO recently carried out on a suburb of Tripoli. There is nothing left, no people, no buildings, exactly as the US solider described it —no evidence of casualties. At least the latter could seem so to people bent on absolving their consciences of their obviously deadly deeds.

As observers from afar we like to think that wars are clean businesses whereby high technology means we only kill the enemy. We give little thought to the fact that our historic war heroes would turn in their graves at our cowardly killing of combatants from distances where they cannot even see their assailants. Today’s world is governed by selfish interests. It is much better to win at all costs then to be fair. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross refuses to condemn war and work to abolish it; indeed, they would be out of business if they did.

Today, few have the courage of the founder of the Red Cross movement and first Nobel Prize winner, the Swissman Henri Dunant. He had courage to condemn war in all its forms and saw the Red Cross movement as having as its primary aim the ending of all wars. Instead, today we give the Nobel Prize to people who start wars, such as US President Barack Obama, whose most significant foreign policy legacy to date is his aggression against the people of Libya.

Such a system of uncontrolled —or at least unconsidered —violence is not what our most enlightened thinkers have planned for our civilisation. International law as a minimum standard of common humanity that has been developed over hundreds of years indicates something much different.

What does international law say?

International law —the most fundamental and minimal rules for the whole international community —expressly prohibits the use of force against the political independence and territorial integrity of a sovereign state. The United Nations Charter contains this solemn prohibition. In fact, the United Nations was created to prevent wars and to ensure states settle their disputes peacefully.

The International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, has interpreted this to mean that a sovereign state is almost never justified in using force against another sovereign state. In a case involving the United States and Nicaragua, the Court made this crystal clear, stating emphatically that even when human rights are allegedly being violated to a significant extent this does not justify the use of force by one sovereign state against another.

It is noteworthy that the court handed down this decision in a case involving a very powerful state and a much smaller state. The court nevertheless was confronted by the restraints of the law, and resolved to obey and apply them.

The actions by states against Libya today fly in the face of international law. While the UN Charter does allow an exception to the prohibition of the use of force, it also constrains the use of this exception for the same reasons it generally limits the use of force: to prevent war and to force states to resolve their disputes peacefully.

The action taken by the UN Security Council is deficient in several ways. First, the Security Council never attempted to resolve the dispute peacefully. Even when it adopted Resolution 1970 it did not even give these measures a chance to work; in fact many had not even been implemented when the bombing of the Libyan people began.

Second, Article 42, which allows the Security Council to authorise the use of force, says that it must first make a determination that peaceful means of resolution failed. If these means had not even started to work, surely no decision about their ultimate failure could be made.

Third, Article 47, paragraph 3, states unambiguously that the Military Staff Committee must exercise strategy direction over the use force that is authorised by the Security Council. The Military Staff Committee has not even been involved in the bombing of Libya.

Finally, articles 24 and 25 state that the Security Council is bound by the principles and purposes of the UN Charter. Primary among these purposes and principles are the prohibition of the use of force between states and the command that states must resolve their disputes peacefully. Even if these articles had not stated these obvious restrictions on the Security Council’s actions, they would automatically apply, as the Security Council is a creation of the UN Charter and therefore bound to act within the restraints of its provisions.

Some observers have nevertheless gone to fantastic lengths to justify the Security Council’s action by claiming it is not bound by the provisions of the Charter. This argument is not only sophistry, but it is a clearly wrong reading of the clear words of the UN Charter.

In fact, articles 24 and 25, where the instruction for the Security Council to obey the UN Charter appears, can only be understood as speaking about the Security Council. Nevertheless, some observers —usually emailing me from anonymous US email addresses —have suggested that these instructions do not apply to the Security Council, although the UN Charter clearly says they do. Arguing with such nonsense is not very valuable, but it does help us to understand who benefits from the civil war in Libya.

Which Libya?

The use of force always creates losers and rarely creates winners. This is exceedingly clear in Libya. The two sides are led by the same people who have led the country for years. The government under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is pitted against armed opposition led by former ministers in Colonel Gaddafi’s own government. These ministers initially had tribal disputes with the tribe of Gaddafi and maybe they even had good grievances that needed to be addressed, but by going to war they have destroyed a country that was developed and striving in its African context.

I visited Libya several times over the past years and saw its development. Even coming from Alexandria, Egypt —where the slums outnumbered the luxury seaside apartments of the elites —Benghazi and Tripoli were humble cities where one noticed much fewer inequalities but an equal level of development. The streets of these cities were clean, there was clean running water, and the shops were generally full. Moreover, employment was plentiful for those who wanted it, and Libya even drew on a significant number of migrant workers.

Certainly political participation was a problem. I remember watching out the window of the Tripoli conference centre when the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights met a few years back, while the Libyan leader was addressing the commission. A humble group of protesters suddenly appeared outside the building proclaiming the need for press freedom. They could not even be seen from the main hall, but I was just outside the hall alternating my attention from the leader’s lengthy speech to the beautiful seaside view. Just as suddenly as the protesters appeared so did a wave of security officers out of nowhere who rolled up the protesters’ banner together with the protesters and carted them away.

When I later made enquires among human rights lawyers I knew and who knew Libya well, I was told the protesters had been held several hours and then released without charge after being lectured on the bad name they were giving their country.

This was undoubtedly not an appropriate way for the Libyan government to treat peaceful protesters, but it wasn’t any harsher then the death threats made to me by police officers in Washington, DC, a few years back when I was peacefully protesting the World Bank’s exploitative ways.

Moreover, while the United States has consistently for decades done everything in its power to undermine international cooperation through the UN and even the Organisation of American States, the Libyan government under its current leaders has made unparalleled efforts to develop international cooperation.

At last years’ African Union Summit, Gaddafi pledged $90 billion to promote African unity. As Western government officials were constantly saying up until a few months ago, Colonel Gaddafi was also “playing ball” with the West. He had resolved the Lockerbie Case, submitted several international disputes to peaceful settlement means, and even offered to step down at the start of the recent hostilities —an offer I saw myself.

Now the money promised to the African Union will likely not appear. Instead, and despite a UN arms embargo, the armed opposition has signed an arms deal, trading the country’s oil for arms.

Who benefits from the Libyan civil war?

It is not the African Union who will benefit from the current civil war in Libya but Western countries, ironically the same countries that are bombing the Libyan people.

The United States has given a needed boost to its military industrial complex that was starting to cool down as its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq turned into protracted low intensity conflicts with little left on which to drop megaton bombs.

Qatar, although relatively unimportant, got their candidate to become president of the UN General Assembly, the highest-ranking official in the UN, while courting favour with the West by participating in the NATO bombing of the Libyan people. No NATO country blinked an eye at the fact that Qatar itself is ruled by dynastic families, although families more sympathetic to the West then perhaps even its Arab neighbours.

In Europe, Spain seems to have already profited from the cluster bombs it sold to Libya and which are being used either by the government or the armed opposition or both. For France, the UK, and Italy, the chance to use their planes to bomb defenceless Libyans is a blessing for embattled prime ministers whose own authority and governments seem to be failing badly.

It is these selfish interests that will be the legacy of the international community for its action against the people of Libya. Even if there is an Iraq-like change of authority, which is likely the best the armed opposition can achieve, poor Libyans will become poorer and the rich richer. When once almost all Iraqis had jobs and relative security, today working means risking one’s life every day. There is hardly a country in the world with greater insecurity.

By putting selfish interest ahead of the common interests reflected in international law and the United Nations System we created, we have once again failed to live up to the lofty goal of abolishing war and ending recourse to violence for the settlement of international disputes. Undoubtedly, many Western pundits will proclaim such lofty aspirations to be unrealistic, but even they cannot deny that we could have made a much better effort to achieve them.

In Libya, we could still end —or at least limit —the bloodshed by stopping the cowardly bombing of the country and resorting to increased pressure on both sides of the civil war to resolve their dispute peacefully. If we don’t take such action, we will have no one else to blame but ourselves when others decide to use senseless force against us in our homes. We will have taught them to do so.

The writer is a prominent international human rights lawyer.

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