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Gaddafi regime’s ‘last stand’ mentality

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Stefan Simanowitz looks at the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle and assesses the extent to which the ICC referral might have backfired.

On 26 February the UN Security Council passed a hard-hitting resolution designed to send a clear message to Colonel Gaddafi and his regime. As well as an asset freeze, travel ban and arms embargo, the UN also 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 extra-judicial killing, but Colonel Gaddafi is not your average leader. Several days on and 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 other option but 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’.

The escalating violence in Libya presents a very public test of the international community’s commitment to prevent crimes against humanity

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 which 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; experience has shown 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 authorized 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. While 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 success or failure of international action on Libya will shape future forms of humanitarian intervention

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, it will be harder for a post-conflict Libya to put itself together again. Bloody internal conflicts – be they in Iraq or Rwanda, Yugoslavia or Indonesia – leave indelible scares on nations and festering resentments 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 chose will be carefully watched by policy-makers 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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  1. #1 Peace Activist 22 Apr 11

    Another interesting article, on a subject of great importance

    Having read the above article, I think the title ’Gaddafi regime's 'last stand' mentality’ is of great significance. I cannot know precisely what is going through Gaddafi's mind; however I know what's going through my own. I'm sure this is Gaddafi's 'last stand'he has no choice but to fight to the death. The global events of the last fews years have brought international discontent. People tend to think locally and tend to be less altruistic towards others dissimilar to themselves. So when when the price of food and fuel began to rise, like the level of unemployment; We saw demonstrations and discontent across the globe. Whilst all the rest of worlds problems, where overshadowed by tribalism and did not produce the same global reaction. These demonstrations spread quickly to the Middle East. Western governments supported the dictatorships that where advantageous to their own needs; and seized the opportunity to get rid of Gaddafi. Whilst there is no doubt, truth in some of the accusations made against him; they are, no doubt made too a degree disingenuously and have little moral worth. Yes it's a good and noble cause saving civilians from atrocities that may be committed by Gadaffi's forces; but we should ask what surreptitious agendas may lie underneath. There are those who fear ’mission creep’ but I fear mission whoosh!!! I've little doubt that this is a mission to kill Gadaffi and those close around him. I do not think we will see any of the freedom, democracy and so on, hoped for. I think it most probable we will see more ’enduring Freedom’ with all that goes with it. I'm very concerned by the proposal to use PMSCs to support and advise the rebel forces. Whilst this has only just been announced; I have little doubt this was planned at the start. Such private military companies have a dubious reputation and are in effect above all law everywhere. This maybe another major disaster about to unfold.

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