How a British NGO Transported Rebels to the Libyan Front

In what appears, at first glance, a rather innocuous bit of war propaganda targeted primarily at moving hearts and minds in the UK to delve deeper into their pockets to donate to NGOs involved in humanitarian relief efforts in war-torn  Libya, the BBC recently featured first-person accounts of three volunteers serving UK-based aid organizations bringing sorely needed supplies and assistance to the wounded and shell-shocked. In the news report, which ran under the banner of “UK doctors and aid workers: ‘Why we’re helping in Libya’”[1] (apparently with a wink and a nod to “Why We Fight” in both the original Capra and the more recent versions), the volunteers, an orthopedic surgeon working with Libyan Doctors Relief UK[2], a GP attached to Doctors without Borders[3], and a project advisor for Save the Children[4], focus largely on the horrors endured by combatants on both sides, and to a lesser extent on the impact of the conflict on the civilian population, with accounts of tremendous altruism and self-denial that bear witness to the sheer resilience of the human spirit in the face of the ravages of war. None of the aid workers interviewed reports encountering women who have been raped, wounded children, or signs of other atrocities visited on non-combatants, and all agree that the youngest fighters are about 16 to 17 years old. Remarkably, the Save the Children volunteer provides no indication of the age of the “children” she is supposed to assist (do child soldiers count? or are they categorized as “combatants” not worthy of “saving”?). I, for one, have been unable to find a clear definition of the term “child” on the charity’s website.

Be that as it may, on closer examination, the report also seems to contain a few rather shocking revelations, suggesting that at least one UK-based charity, Libyan Doctors Relief UK, has been involved in training and transporting armed rebel fighters, including a 16 year old child soldier. If true, these revelations imply that the charity, acted in breach of the UK’s (as well as Libya’s!) international treaty obligations under Article 4(1)and (2) of the Optional Protocol on the Convention of the Rights of Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict[5], ratified by the UK on 24 June 2003, and acceded to by the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on 29 October 2004.

The Article in question provides:   “(1)     Armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years.  (2)     States Parties shall take all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use, including the adoption of legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalize such practices.” It is also interesting to note that, upon ratification, the UK confirmed previous undertakings to ensure that members of its armed forces under the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities, and declared that the minimum age for military recruitment is 16, whilst upon acceding to the Optional Protocol, the Gaddafi government declared that “the required legal age for volunteering to serve in the armed forces (…) is eighteen years”[6].

According to the BBC news report, the Benghazi-born orthopedic surgeon identified merely as “Khaled” who settled in the UK sixteen years ago:

“was due to return home on Sunday but the ship taking him to Malta returned to port as the rebels began to make their final advance to Tripoli.

“We were asked to deliver 50 boxes of medical aid and food supplies to Tripoli,” says Khaled. “None of us wanted to refuse to help because we thought ‘This is why we’re here’.”

And then much to his surprise, a group of rebels arrived carrying weapons and machine guns.

“There were at least 150 of them and they said ‘Look guys, we need your help… Will you take us?’

“The youngest was 16 and the commander was only 40. We spent hours talking and realized they didn’t have any medical training – so we gave them a first-aid course.”

It was not thought safe to dock at Tripoli so a few miles out, speedboats turned up to take the rebels on the final leg of their journey.

Khaled’s ship eventually reached port and he dropped off the aid and supplies, an experience he describes as “scary but incredible” amid the fighting.”

Neither Khaled nor the BBC reporters Gerry Holt and Andrew Black, appear to appreciate the implications of Khaled’s frank admission that, as an orthopedic surgeon intent on assisting in relief efforts in a war-torn region, he spent “hours” talking to the armed rebels only to discover that they had no medical training, and then proceeded to provide the training himself, even as he allowed them to be transported to the front (most probably to their deaths, given their lack of preparedness) on an aid ship! The cruelty of this sort of kindness eludes them completely. It does not seem to occur to any of them that by training and transporting fighters, including a child soldier, to the front, a medical doctor serving a supposedly “neutral” aid agency in a conflict zone, has clearly overstepped the bounds of his professional ethics, and could even be complicit in the commission of war crimes as defined under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – Article 8(b) (xxiii) Utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations; as well as (xxvi) Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities[7] (it may indeed be in light of this last provision that everyone seems absolutely sure that all the fighters were at least 16 years of age!).

The seriousness of this activity cannot be overestimated. It makes a complete sham of the neutrality and impartiality so forcefully stressed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as well as various UN bodies which point out that even the mere appearance of a breach of the principle could pose a mortal danger to their staff, since any one side of a conflict could consider them “fair game” in light of their efforts in favor of its adversaries[8]. Indeed, there are strong indications that it was precisely such suspicions that led to  the Aug. 2003 suicide attack on the UN Assistance Mission housed at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, in which the UN Special Representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was killed, together with 20 members of his staff.  Remarkably, the only interviewee who mentioned neutrality in the BBC report, was the volunteer working with Doctors without Borders which was founded by Bernard Kouchner to mark his disagreement with  the ICRC’s long-standing policy of “silence”[9].

The GP attached to Doctors without Borders, who “had never worked in a conflict zone before coming to Libya” also blatantly belies the description of Misrata as Libya’s “Stalingrad” in media reports worldwide, finding the situation in the city “surprisingly normal” just about three months after it fell to the rebels, although she did have to seek cover on one occasion and “you never quite know when something might flare up”. (Stalingrad, often described as the scene of the bloodiest battle in history, was totally flattened).  For her part, Save the Children’s project advisor seems to be focusing solely on civilian children displaced by the conflict, although there is no mention of orphans, rapes, or other types of violence against children, commonly encountered in conflicts everywhere. Above all, no one appears the least concerned about the child soldiers who in all probability have no inkling at all about why they fight.

Kevin Maciel is a translator/interpreter, specializing in the legal and financial domains, based in Italy. He can be contacted at k.maciel@tin.it.

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