The death of the despised despot who ruled Libya for forty-two years naturally produced celebrations throughout the country. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s end was bloody and vindictive, but we should remember that his rants against his own people—and his violent repression of what was initially a peaceful uprising—invited a harsh popular response. Recalling W.H. Auden’s famous line “Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return,” it is almost inevitable that when a leader refers to his opponents as “rats” and pledges to hunt them down house by house, the stage is set for the kind of retribution that played out recently in Sirte.
These unfortunate events unexpectedly make accountability for war crimes an early test of the moral and political credentials of Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC). Will it investigate the apparent wrongdoing of its own forces? Will it cooperate with the International Criminal Court and ensure due process to those accused of crimes on behalf of the Qaddafi regime? At the same time, Western nations should not hold Libya to higher standards than they are willing to apply to themselves. The United States, for example, exempts its soldiers and leaders from international accountability, even as it pushes the international community to punish America’s enemies. As with so much else that concerns North Africa after the Arab Spring, all roads to the future turn out to be treacherous obstacle courses.
The leadership vacuum in Libya is not likely to be filled anytime soon. We don’t know whether tribal or regional loyalties will be the primary political identities now that the great unifier—hostility to the Qaddafi regime—can no longer suppress diverse goals and ambitions. The TNC lent international credibility to the anti-Qaddafi forces, but much of the fighting in the last stages of the struggle was under the control of semiautonomous militia commanders. We will soon learn whether the TNC can represent the collective will of Libyans during the interim process that is needed before establishing an elected government.
Some pessimists have speculated that Libya’s future is prefigured by the chaotic violence that befell Somalia after the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, which has persisted ever since. But on a more hopeful note, it is worth observing that the fall of Qaddafi—unlike that of Hosni Mubarak, whose overthrow did not alter the power structure in Egypt—gives the victorious Libyan opposition a clean slate that may be more receptive to democratic nation-building. Libyans have granted themselves a rare opportunity for genuine revolutionary transformation of their political, economic and cultural life. Thus, it could turn out to be helpful that Qaddafi left no institutional infrastructure behind.
Libya has some major advantages, most obviously oil and a relatively small population. An important test in the months ahead will be the extent to which the new leadership manages the economy and insulates the national wealth from foreign predators, corporate and governmental. Of course, in the background is the sense that NATO was integral to the overthrow and may expect more than a thank-you note.
Looking at the Libya experience from an international perspective raises several more concerns. The appraisal of NATO’s intervention will be mainly shaped by whether Libya emerges as a stable, democratic and equitable nation. This will not be knowable for years, but some aspects of the Libya intervention already make it a troubling precedent. The UN Security Council, which authorized the use of force under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, was either duped or complacent, possibly both. The authorizing resolution was framed by establishing a no-fly zone, with the justification for force at the time focused on protecting the threatened population of Benghazi. Yet this limited mandate was disregarded almost from the outset. NATO forces were obviously far less committed to their assigned protective role than to ensuring that the balance of forces be tipped in the direction of the insurrection. If this intention had been clear at the outset, it’s almost certain Russia and China would have vetoed the UN resolution. During the debate these two countries expressed misgivings about encroaching on Libya’s sovereignty, and they were joined by India, Brazil and Germany as abstaining Security Council members.
It is extremely disturbing that a restricted UN mandate was ignored and that the Security Council did not reconsider the original mandate or censure NATO for unilaterally expanding the scope and nature of its military role. By ignoring the UN’s limits, NATO may have destroyed the prospects for future legitimate uses of the principle of responsibility to protect.
There are several dimensions to this concern. To begin with, the UN Charter was drafted to minimize the role of force in world politics, making war a last resort. To this was added the secondary undertaking of the Charter, which is to assure that the UN is bound by Article 2(7) to refrain from intervening in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of nations unless it is necessary to maintain international peace and security. The NATO intervention seems impossible to reconcile with these two core principles of the Charter, the constitutional framework that is supposed to guide the UN’s behavior. True, these principles have been eroded as human rights has emerged as a strong dimension of world order. But they are still operative guidelines. It might have been legally and morally acceptable to mount the narrowly conceived protective mission—although even at the moment of approval, there was widespread skepticism at the UN, because some members distrusted the pro-interventionist reassurances of the United States and its European partners or anticipated that pressures on the ground would produce mission creep.
The Libya experience has cast doubt on the responsibility to protect as a basis of UN action on behalf of a vulnerable people. There were already some doubts about the selectivity of Libya’s application of the norm, especially given the UN’s failure to lift a finger on behalf of the beleaguered population of Gaza, which has suffered under a long and punitive Israeli blockade. But beyond this glaring example of a double standard, there is the widespread sense that in Libya, the responsibility to protect was quickly, and without serious debate, transformed into an opportunity to oust.
If such protective undertakings are to be credible in the future, they must be detached from geopolitics. Perhaps the best mechanism for reaching such a goal would be to establish a UN Emergency Force, activated by a two-thirds vote in either the Security Council or the General Assembly, not subject to veto. Such a force would have to be funded independently, possibly by imposing a tax on international air flights or currency transactions. Of course, such an arrangement will not be easy to achieve, because it threatens geopolitical prerogatives. And it could be misused. But at least there would be a greater prospect that authorizing guidelines would be respected and that compliance would be supervised.
In the meantime, we can only hope that Libyans establish a viable and independent democratic state that is respectful of human rights and energetic in its efforts at reconstruction, without being overly hospitable to foreign investors and companies. And after their devastating air campaign, the NATO countries should be challenged to stand aside and respect the Libyans’ inalienable right of self-determination.