Libya’s Shadow

Reports by independent Arab human rights organizations and the UN Human Rights Council (published March 2) document the human rights violations in Libya since February 2011. They show us that it was indeed the case that the Qaddafi regime conducted crimes against humanity and, when the war began, war crimes.

But what the UN report also shows us is that the regime was not conducting genocide. That word was casually thrown around in February and March, egging on to war a public worried about what people in the Obama administration began to call a “Srebrenica on steroids” (referring to the Bosnian town where a massacre was committed in July 1995).
It is also the case, as the reports show, that the rebels committed both crimes against humanity and war crimes, with no prospect of any prosecutions of these fighters who are now allies of the states that are members of NATO.
There will be no formal investigation into the ethnic cleansing of the town of Tawerga, where tens of thousands of dark-skinned Libyans have been removed by a section of the rebels who go under the name of “the brigade for purging slave and black skin.” There has been little outrage about the making of this “ghost town,” as Andrew Gilligan called it in the London Telegraph (August 2011). The human rights regime has been applied unevenly: against the enemies of NATO, but not against its allies.
What is most startling about the UN report is what it reveals about the role of NATO. The report asks for an investigation of NATO’s potential war crimes, but is snubbed by the military alliance, whose lawyer, Peter Olsen, wrote in February of this year to the UN Commission “that, in the event the Commission elects to include a discussion of NATO actions in Libya, its report clearly states that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya.” In other words, it is impossible for NATO to commit war crimes. NATO, unlike the Libyans, is too civilized to be guilty of any such violations. It is, therefore, above investigation.
The scandal here is that NATO, a military alliance, refuses any civilian oversight of its actions. It operated under a UN mandate (Security Council Resolution 1973) and yet refuses to allow a UN evaluation of its actions. NATO, in other words, operates as a rogue military entity, outside the bounds of the prejudices of democratic society. It is precisely because NATO refuses an evaluation that the UN Security Council will not allow another NATO-like military intervention.
As I show in my new book, NATO’s intervention into Libya had motives far from those of the concerns of human rights and protection of civilians. If civilians were the first priority, the NATO states would welcome an investigation into the many allegations of civilian deaths because of NATO bombardment (Chris Chivers and Eric Schmitt’s lone report in The New York Times, Dec. 17, bears the headline, “In Strikes on Libya by NATO, an Unspoken Civilian Toll”). But they do not.
If protection of civilians was not the main war aim, what was it? Certainly access to the sweet oil of Libya was one motivation. Another was political. The Arab Spring was an indictment of Western-backed dictators (from Tunisia’s Ben Ali to Egypt’s Mubarak onward, and most threateningly to the Gulf monarchies). The Libyan campaign was an attempt by the West to insinuate NATO as an agent for Good and not as a bulwark for Dictatorships. Protection of civilians fell low on the totem of NATO’s operation. The politics were far more important than the human rights.
A U.S. military study conducted by the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis division of the Joint Staff J7 shows that the U.S. bore the burden of the Libyan war, behind the NATO shield. The same study indicates that the U.S. war planners at the African Command “were unsure as to whether ‘regime change’ was an intended option, or whether operations were to be focused solely on protecting civilian life and providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees.”
The UN mandate was for the latter, but the confusion allowed the U.S. and NATO to pursue expanded war aims. This allowed NATO military force to bombard cities, including Tripoli in May and June of last year (as Simon Denyer of the Washington Post put it from Tripoli in early June, “silence in Tripoli after day-long NATO bombardment”). This inflation of the mandate also gives pause to the UN, whose failure to fully evaluate who ran the military operation and how targets were chosen based on the various mandates means that they are reluctant to go into another such mission that gives NATO carte blanche.
Libya is the shadow that hangs over Syria.
> The article above was written by Vijay Prashad, a professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, and author of at least 14 books on world affairs. This article is based on a portion of the presentation that Prashad gave on March 25 at the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) conference in Stamford, Conn. Prashad’s book published last month, “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter” (AK Press) includes material that expands on the themes of this article.