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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser