The International Criminal Court has formally agreed that warrants should be issued for the arrest of Col. Muammar Qaddafi, as well as his son, Seif al-Islam, who has been acting as Prime Minister along with Libya’s intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi. These three Libyan leaders are charged with crimes against humanity involving the murder, injuring, and imprisoning of Libyan civilians between February 10-18, 2011, the first days of the uprising, and prior to NATO’s military involvement.
The ICC judge, speaking on behalf of a three-judge panel, authorized the issuance of the arrest warrants on the basis that the evidence presented by the prosecutor constituted ‘reasonable grounds’ to support the charges contained in the outstanding indictments against these three individuals. Judge Sanji Monogeng of Botswana clarified the ruling by explaining that issuing an arrest warrant was meant to convey the conclusion that sufficient evidence of criminality existed to proceed with the prosecution, but it is not intended to imply guilt, which must be determined by the outcome of a trial.
The ICC assessment is likely to withstand scrutiny so far as the substance of the accusations directed at the Qaddafi leadership are concerned. Qaddafi clearly responded to the popular challenges directed by the Libyan against his regime with extreme violence against civilians, reinforced by genocidal rhetoric, which certainly seems to involve crimes against humanity. But I am led to question why such an effort to arrest and indict was pushed so hard at this time. The timing of the indictment, and now the arrest warrants, arouses strong suspicions, and not just of bad judgment! It is relevant to recall that in the course of NATO’s Kosovo War in 1999 against Serbia, the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, was indicted by another European-based international tribunal—the special ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia. Are we now to expect that whenever NATO has recourse to war, the political leader heading its opposition will be charged with international crimes while the fighting ensues? How convenient! Lawfare in the service of warfare!
Rather than a matter of convenience, the motivation seems more sinister. Criticism is deflected from NATO’s own lawlessness. In both of these instances, NATO itself has resorted to war unlawfully, engaging in what was designated at Nuremberg as a ‘crime against peace,’ and held by that tribunal to be the greatest of war crimes embracing within itself both crimes against humanity and gross violations of the laws of war (war crimes). In the Kosovo War, NATO acted without a mandate from the UN, thereby violating the UN Charter’s core principle prohibiting non-defensive uses of force unless authorized by the Security Council. In Libya there was such an initial authorization to protect civilians by establishing a no-fly zone (Security Council Resolution 1973, 17 May 2011), but the NATO mission as executed almost immediately grossly exceeded the original mandate, and did little to hide its un-mandated goal of regime change in Tripoli by way of ending Qaddafi’s role as ruler and thereby achieving victory for opposition forces in a civil war.
It is certainly worthy of comment that in both of these wars initiated by NATO, the leader of a country attacked was targeted for criminal prosecution before hostilities has ended. Even the Allies in World War II waited until after the end of combat before trying to impose their version of ‘victors’ justice’ on surviving defeated German and Japanese leaders.
A closely related pattern projection of criminal accountability occurred in Iraq. The American led aggressive war waged against Iraq in 2003 was quickly followed by a carefully planned and orchestrated criminal prosecution, stage-managed behind the scenes by the US occupation commanders, followed by the execution of Saddam Hussein (and his close associates). The Iraqi trial was politically circumscribed so as to exclude any evidence bearing on the close and discrediting strategic relationship maintained between the United States and Iraq during the period of Saddam Hussein’s most serious instances of criminality (genocidal operations against Kurdish villages), as well as by disallowing any inquiry into American criminality associated with the attack on Iraq and subsequent allegations of criminal wrongdoing in response to Iraqi resistance to military occupation. This American potential criminality was never discussed, much less investigated in a responsible manner.
What converts these separate instances into a pattern is the Eurocentric (or West-centric) selectivity evident in most recent efforts to enforce international criminal law. It should be noted that this selectivity is made more objectionable by the impunity accorded to European, American, and Israeli leaders. Double standards so pervasively evident in this behavior undermine the authority of law, especially in relation to a subject-matter as vital as war and peace. Unless equals are treated equally most of the time, what is called ‘law’ is more accurately treated as ‘geopolitics.’
The geopolitical nature of this approval of arrest warrants just issued by the ICC is unintentionally confirmed when it is acknowledged by NATO officials that it will not be possible to arrest Qaddafi unless in the unlikely event that he is captured by the Rebels. Governmental representatives in Washington admitting this have declared that the warrants will nevertheless be useful in forthcoming UN debates about Libyan policy, presumably to push aside any objections based on the failure by NATO to limit military operations to the no-fly zone initially authorized by the Security Council. It should be remembered that the initial authorization in SC Resolution 1973 was itself weakened by five abstentions, including China and Russia, and, further, by South Africa, which voted with the majority while expressing strong objections to the subsequent undertaking. One wonders whether China and Russia would not have used their veto had they anticipated how far beyond what was insisted on limited humanitarian purposes by the proponents of the use of force the actual operation would become. In effect, to overcome any impression of unlawfulness on NATO’s part, it is useful to demonize the adversary, and an opportune way to reach this goal is to put forward premature accusations of severe criminality.
Of course, as has been pointed out more than once, there was an embedded hypocrisy in the central argument put forward by the states seeking a UN green light to intervene in Libya, which was based on the ‘responsibility to protect’ norm that supposedly confers a duty on the international community to protect civilian populations that are being subjected to severely abusive behavior. Two obvious contradictions were present. Why not Syria in the current regional setting? And even more starkly, why not Gaza back in 2008-09 when it was being mercilessly attacked by Israel? The answers to such questions are ‘blowin’ in the wind.’
There are further more technical reasons in the present setting to challenge the timing of the arrest warrants. They seem legally and politically dubious. Legally dubious because the most serious criminality associated with the behavior of the Qaddafi regime during the conflict occurred after the ICC cutoff date of 18 February (e.g. the siege of Misrata). Why other than ulterior motivations was there this rush to prosecute? Politically dubious because there is now a new obstacle to diplomacy in a situation where the alternative seems likely to be a prolonged civil war. Negotiating space for an accommodation is definitely reduced by this implication of Qaddafi’s criminality that creates incentives for the Tripoli leadership to fight on as long as possible.
Perhaps, cynics would argue that law always reflects power, and of course they are correct to a certain extent. Progress in human affairs arises from a struggle against such pretensions. And the locus and nature of power is changing in the world: the West is losing its capacity to shape history and high technology warfare, upon which the West depends to enforce its will on the non-West, is losing its capacity to produce political victories (e.g. anti-colonial wars, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). This politicized use of the ICC in the course of the Libyan War offers an opportunity for those dedicated to global justice, especially in the Arab world, to insist that international law should no longer serve as a plaything for those who intervene with hard power in their region from the comfort zone of NATO headquarters.