The Gaddafi regime’s “last stand” mentality

Will the referral of Libya to the International Criminal Court backfire?

On 26 February, the UN Security Council passed a hard-hitting resolution designed to send a clear message to Muammar al-Gaddafi and his regime. As well as an asset freeze, travel ban and arms embargo, the UN took the unprecedented step of requesting that the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate possible war crimes or crimes against humanity committed by Colonel Gaddafi and his forces.

Such a resolution might be expected to persuade most sane leaders to desist from extrajudicial killing, but Colonel Gaddafi is not your average leader. Several days on, it seems that not only did the message fail to stop the violence, but that it may be having the opposite effect, persuading members of the regime in Tripoli that they have no option other than to fight for their survival.

With the attention of the world focused on North Africa and the Middle East, the escalating violence in Libya presents a very public test of the international community's commitment to prevent crimes against humanity. With calls for international action becoming louder, the UN Security Council was stirred into action, passing a landmark resolution, the first of its kind to make unambiguous reference to the principle of "responsibility to protect".

In 2005, following its failures in Rwanda and Kosovo, the UN General assembly adopted the principle of "responsibility to protect", intended to provide a new level of international consensus that would allow swift action to prevent future atrocities. However, repeated failure to intervene in places such as Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka, combined with widespread post-Iraq cynicism toward all forms of so-called humanitarian intervention, suggested the principle might never be put into practice.

And then along came Libya.

While it was always unlikely that Gaddafi, who had already announced his intention to "fight until the last drop of blood", would be unduly bothered by a threat of referral to the ICC, it was hoped that members of his regime – most significantly the military – might take this loss of impunity more seriously. Indeed, Resolution 1970 allows for individuals thought to be responsible for attacks against civilians or human rights abuses to be nominated for addition to the ICC's charge sheet.

But, rather than encouraging the military to turn on Gaddafi, generals and soldiers who had already been involved in putting down the protests may well have been forced into the same "last stand" mentality as their leader.

This is not to say that Resolution 1970 was unwelcome, nor that the principle of responsibility to protect is unimportant. The international community should have an obligation to step in where states manifestly fail to protect their populations. The asset freeze and arms embargo will impact on Libya, but their effect will be slow and experience has shown that sanctions may cripple a nation without necessarily bringing down its governing regime.

Despite Robert Gates's description of it as "loose talk", contingency plans for some form of military intervention are no doubt being drawn up. The imposition of a no-fly zone would need to be authorised by the UN Security Council, and this is looking more possible following the recent shift in the French position and support from the Arab League. Whilst a no-fly zone would not prevent killing on the ground, it would stop aerial attacks by the Libyan air force and prevent weapons and other supplies from reaching Gaddafi's security forces.

The current situation in Libya remains turbulent and unclear. There are indications that a UN humanitarian team may be allowed into Tripoli, but in the meantime the violence continues. As each day passes and more blood soaks into the sand, the harder it will be for a post-conflict Libya to put itself together again. Bloody internal conflicts – be they in Iraq or Rwanda, Yugoslavia or Indonesia – leave indelible scars on nations and festering resentment among their populations.

The international community may struggle to find consensus as to the best way to prevent further bloodshed in Libya, but whatever action or inaction they choose, will be watched carefully by policymakers and dictators around the world. The success or failure of international action on Libya will no doubt shape future forms of humanitarian intervention and help determine how the principle of responsibility to protect can be put into practice.

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and Middle East/Africa analyst.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.