The death of the despised despot who ruled Libya for forty-two years naturally produced celebrations throughout the country. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s end was bloody and vindictive, but we should remember that his rants against his own people—and his violent repression of what was initially a peaceful uprising—invited a harsh popular response. Recalling W.H. Auden’s famous line, “Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return,” it is almost inevitable in the absence of strong moral and political discipline, which was not present, that when a leader refers to his opponents as “rats” and pledges to hunt them down house by house, the stage is set for the unacceptable kind of retribution that played out recently in Sirte where NATO air strikes leveled the city and anti-Qaddafi forces executed at least 53 Qaddafi loyalists. It is an ominous warning sign for the future that this massacre at Sirte, along with the execution and burial of Qaddafi, should have exhibited such vengeful and undisciplined behavior, raising renewed doubts about the character and approach of Transitional National Council leadership, although there still exist possibilities for redeeming this loss of confidence.
These unfortunate happenings make overall accountability for war crimes an early test of whether the TNC will yet prove capable of managing the formation of a political and morally acceptable governmental structure. Will the TNC undertake investigations of the alleged wrongdoings of its own forces in a manner that corresponds with international standards, or will such inquiry be avoided because such an international confidence-raising process would clearly internal factionalism in which any finger-pointing will seem like an encouragement of ethnic and tribal conflict? Will the TNC cooperate with the International Criminal Court to ensure that those charged with war crimes in the service of the Qaddafi regime will receive a fair trial? At the same time there is reason to view with a cynical eye the demands of self-righteous NGOs in the West that seem to expect from Libya what the liberal democratic regimes of the West refuse to do. It should be appreciated in this regard that the United States goes to extraordinary lengths to exempt its soldiers and leaders from potential criminal accountability while it pushes hard to have its enemies subject to the harsh severity of international criminal law. Double standards pervade. As with so much that involves North Africa after the glories of the Arab Awakening, all roads to the future seem destined to have many twists and turns, as well as treacherous potholes.
The leadership vacuum in Libya is not likely to be filled anytime soon. We don’t know whether tribal or regional loyalties will emerge as primary political identities now that the great unifier—hostility to the Qaddafi regime—can no longer suppress antagonistic goals and ambitions. The TNC lent international credibility to the anti-Qaddafi forces, but much of the fighting in the last stages of the struggle was under the control of semiautonomous militia commanders that seemed a law unto themselves. We will soon learn whether the TNC can sufficiently represent the collective will of Libyans during the interim process that is needed before establishing an elected government able to draft a new constitution. Its first attempt to establish a new unity was premised on a call to implement political Islam. The Chairman of the TNC, Mustafa Adbel-Jalil, made the following strong assertion along these lines at the victory celebration in Benghazi: “We are an Islamic country. We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.”
Some pessimists have contended that Libya’s future is prefigured by the chaotic violence that befell Somalia after the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, a tragic set of national circumstances that have persisted ever since. But on a more hopeful note, it is worth observing that the fall of Qaddafi—unlike that of Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow has not yet altered the power structure in Egypt—gives the victorious Libyan opposition a seemingly clean slate that could be more receptive to genuine democratic nation-building, if such a political will emerges. Libyans have given themselves this opportunity that rarely comes along in history to achieve a real revolutionary transformation of their political, economic, and cultural life. Thus, it could turn out paradoxically to be helpful, rather than an impediment, to observe that Qaddafi left no institutional infrastructure behind upon which to construct a modern state. What has happened in Libya, unlike Egypt, is for better or worse a total regime change.
Libya starts out on this new path with some additional major advantages, most obviously oil and a relatively small population. An important test in the months ahead will be the extent to which the new leadership restores normalcy to the economy without mortgaging the national wealth to foreign predators, corporate, financial, and governmental. Of course, in the background is the sense that NATO was integral to the overthrow of Qaddafi and may expect more than a thank-you note. Already there are media murmurs about great business opportunities for the West in the new Libya, including the challenge of rebuilding what NATO destroyed, which seems like a disturbing vindication of Naomi Klein’s groundbreaking book, The Shock Docrtrine, a devastating critique of the contemporary logic of the neoliberal world economy.
Considering Libyan experience from an international perspective raises several additional concerns. The public appraisal of NATO’s intervention will be mainly shaped by whether Libya emerges as a stable, democratic, and equitable nation. This will not be knowable for years, but aspects of the intervention already make Libya a troubling precedent no matter what the future of the country. The UN Security Council, which authorized the use of force by way of an application of the recently affirmed principle known as “responsibility to protect”, or R2P. The five abstaining states were either duped or complacent, and likely both. The authorizing Security Council Resolution 1973 was broadly framed by reference to establishing a no-fly zone by all necessary means, with the justification for force at the time associated with protecting the population of Benghazi from an imminent massacre. Yet this restricted mandate was disregarded almost from the outset. NATO forces were obviously far less committed to their assigned protective role than to making sure that the balance of forces in the struggle for the future of Libya would be tipped in the direction of the insurrection. If this intention had been clear at the outset, it is almost certain that Russia and China would have vetoed the UN resolution. During the debate these two states expressed their grave misgivings and suspicions about encroaching on Libya’s sovereignty, and were joined in the expression of such doubts by India, Brazil, and Germany, who also came to abstaining when it came to voting in the Security Council. If NATO’s broader intention was manifest, Chinese and Russian vetoes were a virtual certainty.
Of course, there was a dilemma present. If NATO had disclosed its goals, there would have been no UNSC authorization, and the Benghazi massacre would have appeared to be a humanitarian catastrophe invited by UN inaction. If NATO had circumscribed its intervention in the manner agreed upon, then a lengthy civil war might have followed, and also brought about a humanitarian disaster for the people of Libya. The perils of intervention have to be balanced against the perils of non-intervention in each instance, but if some tasks of global governance entrusted to the United Nations are to evolve in a constitutionally responsible way, then the minimum to expect is an honest disclosure of intent by member states pushing for intervention, a vigilant monitoring by the authorizing UN organ of any use of force, and a scrupulous regard by implementing actors for the limits imposed on a mandate to use force.
From these perspectives, it is extremely disturbing that a restricted UN mandate was totally ignored, and that the Security Council did not even bother to reconsider the original mandate or censure NATO for unilaterally expanding the scope and nature of its military role. By ignoring the UN’s limits, NATO may have diminished the prospects for future legitimate uses of the R2P principle, and whether this is good or bad is difficult to say in the abstract.
There are several dimensions of this concern. To begin with, the UN Charter was drafted to minimize the legitimate role of force in world politics, making war a last resort, and then only in strict circumstances of self-defense. To this is added the secondary undertaking of the Charter, which is to assure that the UN itself is bound by Article 2(7) to refrain from intervening in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of states unless, under exceptional conditions, it is decided as necessary to maintain international peace and security. The NATO intervention seems impossible to reconcile with either of these two core principles of the UN Charter, which is the constitutional framework that is supposed to guide the behavior of the UN. It is true that these principles have been eroded by practice since their enactment in 1945. Human rights has become such a strong dimension of world order as to take precedence over sovereign rights in certain situations of extreme abuse, which helps explain the rise of the R2P norm over the last decade, especially in the aftermath of the controversial NATO Kosovo War of 1999. Despite these developments, the Charter still provides the operative guidelines for uses of force. In this regard, it might have been legally and morally acceptable, given the circumstance prevailing in Libya when the authorizing resolution was adopted on March 17, 2011, to mount a narrowly conceived protective mission—although it is worth noting that even at the moment of approval, there was widespread skepticism at the UN, either because some members distrusted the pro-interventionist reassurances of the United States and its European partners or anticipated that pressures on the ground would likely produce mission creep as the locus of the violence shifted beyond Benghazi.
The Libya experience raises deeper questions about reliance on the R2P norm as a basis of principled UN action on behalf of a vulnerable people endangered by abusive behavior of their own government. Some doubts already existed about the selectivity of the Libyan application of the norm, especially given the UN’s failure to lift a finger on behalf of the beleaguered civilian population of Gaza, which has suffered under a long and punitive Israeli blockade, with the UN even supporting the Israeli position when the blockade was being challenged by civil society activists seeking to deliver humanitarian assistance directly to the people of Gaza. But aside from this glaring example of double standards, there is also the widespread sense that in Libya, R2P was quickly, and without serious debate, transformed into an opportunity to destroy and oust, with an as yet undetermined array of harmful consequences.
If such protective undertakings are to achieve credibility in the future, they must become detached from geopolitics and operationalized according to a robust regime of law that treats equals equally. Perhaps the most practical mechanism for reaching these presently unattainable goals would be the establishment of a UN Emergency Force that could only be activated by a two-thirds vote in either the Security Council or General Assembly, and not ever be subject to veto. Such a force would need to be funded independently of national governments, possibly by imposing a tax on international air flights or currency transactions. However sensible, such an arrangement will not be easy to bring into being, precisely because its existence would threaten current geopolitical prerogatives that depend on self-interested motivations of leading states. And even this recommended UNEF framework could be manipulated. But at least if it existed, there would be a greater prospect that authorizing guidelines for humanitarian uses of force under UN auspices would be respected, that compliance would be supervised, and that more consistent practice would replace the current brand of humanitarian diplomacy that is deformed by the prevalence of double standards.
Against such a background, we can only wish that the Libyans will defy pessimistic expectations, and manage to establish a viable and independent democratic state that is respectful of human rights and energetic in its efforts at reconstruction, without becoming overly hospitable to foreign investors and companies. After such a devastating air campaign of some 20,000 sorties, the NATO countries should have the decency to stand aside and respect the Libyans’ inalienable right of self-determination. It is a sad commentary on the global setting that to set forth these hopes for the future of Libya and its long suffering population seems like a utopian indulgence!