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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.