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Libya and the Human Rights Double Standard

For some time to come, Libya shall stand as an enduring symbol of the West’s hypocrisy, and indeed duplicity, on the issue of human rights.   While the West, and especially the United States, justified its aerial bombardment of Libya last year on the pretense of saving civilians from a possible, future (rather than actual) attack by Gaddafi forces, the West is silent about the real and ongoing attack of the new Libyan regime upon the town of Bani Walid.  Indeed, one must strain hard to even learn of this attack in the press.

On October 5, 2012, Amnesty International (AI) reported upon the siege of Bani Walid by government forces.  As AI explained then, “members of the Libyan army, Libya Shield forces and armed militias from various parts of the country, including Misatra, surrounded Bani Walid,” ostensibly on the grounds of trying to hunt down and arrest suspects responsible for the killing of Omran Shaaban, “credited with capturing Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi on 20 October 2011.”

AI spokesman Hassiba Hadj Sharaoui was quoted in this report as stating, “’[i]t is worrying that what essentially should be a law-enforcement operation to arrest suspects looks increasingly like a siege of a city and a military operation.’”  Indeed, as the report explains further, groups of armed men have been preventing medical supplies, oxygen, medical personnel, fuel, water and food supplies from reaching the town.  In this same release, Mr. Sharaoui expressed concern about “’the situation of thousands of people held across Libya without charge or trial.’” the “’ongoing abductions of individuals without warrant by armed militias,’” and “’unofficial detention facilities spread across the country.’”

On October 12, AI put out an updated report, again expressing concern about the siege of Bani Walid and about the death of three civilians, including a 9-year old child named Mohamed Mustafa Mohamed Fatallah, in an armed confrontations in the outskirts of the city.  AI then detailed further crimes committed by state and state-aligned forces.  As AI explains:

Bani Walid was among the last cities to fall under the control of anti-Gaddafi forces during Libya’s internal [sic.] conflict last year.  Hundreds of residents from Bani Walid have been arrested by armed militias.  Many continue to be detained without charge or trial across Libyan prions and detention centres, including Misatrah.  Many have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated.  The entrance of anti-Gaddafi forces into Bani Walid in October 2011 was accompanied by widespread looting and other abuses.

Thousands of individuals suspected of having fought for or supported the government of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi continue to be detained across Libya.  The vast majority have yet to be officially charged or brought to trial.  Since the fall of Tripoli and the vast majority of the country under the control of anti-Gaddafi forces in August 2011, human rights abuses by armed militias such as arbitrary arrest and detention; torture or other ill-treatment – including to death; extrajudicial executions and forced displacement continued to take place in a climate of impunity.   To date, armed militia seize people outside the framework of the law and hold them incommunicado in secret detention facilities, where they are vulnerable to torture of other ill-treatment.

Of course, I must pause a bit here to state that, while I certainly applaud AI for its candor in representing the dire situation of the civilian population in Libya after the fall of the Libyan government in August of 2011, AI’s claim that the fall resulted from an “internal conflict” is of course an outrageous misrepresentation of reality.   Indeed, as we all know, the regime change that took place over a year ago came about as a direct and intended result of the NATO bombing of Libya which AI itself encouraged in its professed zeal to protect human rights.   While AI might have been earnest in its intentions, that it believed NATO military action would bring about the flourishing of human rights in Libya was naïve at best.

Meanwhile, The New York Times got around to reporting on the siege of Bani Walid this past Sunday, October 21, in an article entitled, “Libyan town Under Siege Is a Center of Resistance to the New Government.”  The Times  leads the story with a bit of understatement, claiming that “[a] city under siege, a rising death toll and hospitals filling with men wounded by gunfire were unmistakeable signs Sunday that war has returned to the Libyan town of Bani Walid, imperiling the country’s fragile political transition.”  As the Times explained, “[a]t least 22 people have been killed in the last week and hundreds more injured around the city, a one-time bastion of support for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi that has shrugged off the new government’s authority.”

As a number of independent websites have been reporting for days, the Times acknowledged  reports by “[r]esidents of the city [who] say that the electric and gas supplies have been cut off and that the militias encircling the town, including many from the coastal city of Misurata, are shelling it indiscriminately.”  TheTimes acknowledged that “[i]n Tripoli, the Libyan capital, hundreds of people from Bani Walid invaded the Parliament building on Sunday, demanding an end to the violence . . . .”

Of course, what neither the Times nor AI will acknowledge, and what neither Presidential candidate will dare to hint at, is that it was the U.S. and NATO which has unleashed this plague of violence upon the people of Libya.

After the September killing of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and other embassy staff, Hillary Clinton queried, ““How can this happen in a country we help liberate, in a city (Benghazi) we helped save from destruction?”  Of course, Hillary’s question answers itself:  many Libyans do not view themselves as having been liberated or saved from destruction.  To the contrary, they view themselves as having been thrown into an abyss of chaos and violence.  And, as an objective matter, this is true.

And yet, despite AI’s truthful reporting on the post-regime-change situation in Libya of thousands of unlawful detentions, of torture, extra-judicial killings, forced displacement and now the ongoing laying of siege to and shelling of a city,  where are the cries for human rights intervention, military or otherwise, to stop this?  Outside of Libya itself, one strains to hear any such voices.  And of course, this is because the NATO attack on Libya was never about human rights to begin with.

Indeed, the nightmarish human rights situation confronting Libya notwithstanding, NATO’s mission in Libya has been accomplished in full.  A nationalist government which controlled Libya’s oil, to a large extent for the benefit of the Libyan people, has been toppled.    That chaos now reigns, along with crimes against the population, is of no consequence to the West so long as it continues to have unfettered control of Libya’s oil – the grand prize all along.

And, as is so often true, it is what is not said that is most revealing of one’s true feelings. In this instance, it is Amnesty International’s refusal to acknowledge the external source of Libya’s current problems (that is, the NATO bombing) which reveals its own self-consciousness, and possibly even guilt, over its encouragement of a military solution to solve human rights problems – a very dangerous, and at best unreliable, solution indeed.  We are now witnessing the fruits of this solution in Libya, and it is not a pretty one.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh, and is currently teaching International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.    

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Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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