Human rights in Libya

Despite being his global rehabilitation, Libyans continue to face torture if they criticise Gaddafi'

For democracy well-wishers, 2004 in Libya was a fairly good year. After decades of stifling oppression, with public executions and missing prisoners, the country saw cracks of light. The great leader of the revolution, Muammar al-Gaddafi, who holds no official position of power, divided the ministry of interior and justice into separate bodies.

The government talked of reforming the penal code and minimizing application of the death penalty. And in January 2005 the government abolished the notorious People’s Court, renowned for unfair political trials, and began to release some political prisoners. The changes were small but, in the Libyan context, a significant sign of hope.

In May 2005 I visited Libya for Human Rights Watch, our first-ever trip to the country known as the Jamahariya – state of the masses. I was surprised to see that, despite the pervasive control and palpable fear, officials, students and professionals engaged in debates on reform. Those closest to power felt the most comfortable to talk, and they mostly discussed how to improve the system rather than how to see it change. But they still reflected critically about their long-isolated country, eager to reestablish international ties.

Two-and-a-half years later, that criticism and the optimism it engendered are much harder to find. The People’s Court is gone but a new State Security Appeals Court took its place, holding sessions inside a prison of the Internal Security Agency. The country still has no free press and no independent organisations. Libyans continue to face arrest and torture for expressing peaceful criticism of the government and its undisputed leader, and in the past 18 months, three of those people have disappeared.

The many promised reforms, such as a new penal code and code of criminal procedure, have not taken place. Human Rights Watch has not been allowed back into the country but Libyans tell me many of the critical debates have slowed or stopped. In one opposition-oriented town, Benghazi, the authorities have for months banned football matches at the stadium—ostensibly because the structure has cracks.

One explanation for the halted reform is confusion in Gaddafi's tent. The Brother Leader, as he is known, is adept at exerting control and balancing the country’s desert clans. But he apparently lacks a road map for reform, especially one that could threaten his grip. The signs are often mixed. One week he supports the so-called reform wing, run by his western-educated son Saif al-Islam, who talks of free media and fighting corruption, and the next he promotes staunch supporters of the status quo.

Gaddafi is also reportedly surrounded by yes-men and sycophants, who instruct visitors “not to upset him.” Although he remains involved in the smallest decisions of daily life, he may be isolated and out of touch.

A more cynical view is that Gaddafi has calculated well, having benefited from global rehabilitation without pressure from foreign governments to truly reform. After taking initial steps, he was visited by foreign leaders from Europe and top officials from the United States. Business contracts flowed.

Relations with Europe stalled from the high profile case of the five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, imprisoned for eight years for allegedly infecting more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. But Gaddafi released the heath workers this July, and the welcome train rolled.

Indeed, western governments are driven by two primary concerns: oil and cooperation on counter-terrorism. Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves. It is selling drilling rights, and also upgrading its facilities, buying military hardware and constructing power plants. Europe and the U.S. are eager to take part, and human rights have a nasty way of scuttling lucrative deals.
Governments engaging Libya argue that Gaddafi must be rewarded for renouncing terrorism and WMD.  “If we don’t welcome countries that are starting to take the path of respectability, what can we say to those that leave that path,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, after hosting Gaddafi in Paris in December. Indeed, Libya complains that it has not reaped enough benefits for cooperating with the West.

But Sarkozy also signed multi-billion euro deals, including the sale of 21 Airbus planes and a nuclear reactor to desalinate sea water, after the Gaddafi trip. Other governments have done the same. The contract sprint is on, and countries do not want to miss the race.

In this sense, Gaddafi's plan seems clear: governments will come running for business, as well as for the intelligence he shares on Islamist militant groups. They may pay lip service to torture and imprisoned dissidents, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did last week when meeting the Libyan foreign minister in Washington, but not condition their relations on improvements in human rights. The EU is currently devising a framework agreement with Libya, and there is no substantive talk of benchmarks, such as accountability for torture or more independent courts.

How best to encourage reform in Libya is a complex affair. Gaddafi maintains total control. He brooks no unsanctioned dissent. Apart from a regime-change policy, how do governments encourage a new course?
At the end of the day, one fact is clear: Gaddafi is interested first and foremost in protecting and promoting his own power, and perhaps in eventually ensuring a transfer of power to one of his sons. His decision to engage with the west was driven by this calculated goal, fearing he was next after the US invasion of Iraq, and his future decisions will follow that logical course.
He will never undertake radical reform, such as allowing independent media or opposition groups. But acting in concert, the west can condition its relations on small but significant steps, such as abolishing the death penalty, improving the penal code, and strengthening the judicial system, all of which Gaddafi himself has placed on the agenda.

Cultural and educational exchanges for Libyans are also key. Ultimately, while foreign governments have placed drilling rights above human rights, the Libyans must push themselves for the construction of independent institutions and the rule of law.

Fred Abrahams is senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. He spent three weeks in Libya on a fact-finding mission in May 2005 and authored the organization’s first report on the country, Words to Deeds: the Urgent Need for Human Rights Reform

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis