Kishwer Falkner writes… Libya: our common humanity crosses frontiers to protect those we do not know

As tyrannical regimes go, Libya is right there at the top and ranks alongside North Korea for the unpredictability of its ruler, the self-styled Colonel Muammar Gaddafy, who used to be referred to by Ronald Reagan as the Middle East’s ‘mad dog’.

Having given up nuclear weapons he is admittedly slightly better than Kim Jong-il, but we cannot know for sure that he has also given up chemical and biological weapons. In a country where tribal loyalties prevail and where the four main tribes occupy the main positions, Gaddafi’s own tribe occupies the top posts and much of his internal repression is carried out through a myriad of different state security institutions as well as a plethora of paramilitary units, recruited from abroad.

The country does not have a constitution, but is run by a revolutionary ruling council which has been in situ for 42 years and cannot be dismissed. There have been regular attempts at coups over this period, which have been ruthlessly put down and there are no evident pointers to a peaceful succession.

Gaddafi’s four sons have long been involved in jostling for the top position and foreign governments were betting on Saif al Islam (the second son) to take over the reins, as he was increasingly the acceptable face of the regime.

Saif al Islam al Gaddafi was awarded a PhD from LSE enticingly titled “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions”. He chairs the Human Rights Commission of Libya, and lest anyone doubt that he is therefore a soft touch, he was his father’s voice last weekend displaying a similar determination to stay in power through putting down the uprising till as he put it, the last man, the last woman, and the last bullet had been expended. He appears to be delivering on his pledge.

Several hundreds have died in the last few days, hospitals are overflowing and as a crackdown has started, anyone moving on the street is shot dead. Reports say that ambulances are also shot at to deter them from trying to save the injured. The air force has been mobilised to bomb civilian residential areas, and the reign of terror has started.

So what should be done now, that the country has descended into chaos?

While we may justifiably cringe to see the images of Tony Blair as the cheerleader for Gaddafi’s rehabilitation and we have oil and commercial interests there, this should not mean that we walk by on the other side. We should be clear that the UN Security Council, which met belatedly yesterday on the issue, takes up its responsibility to the Libyan people, as defecting Libyan diplomats have repeatedly asked it to. Freezing the Libyan regime’s assets would be a start as well as stringent sanctions against the country. The oil shortfall can be managed through increased production elsewhere.

But we should go further: enforcing a no-fly zone (such as that which saved the Kurds in 1992), to prevent the air force from bombing its own people. We certainly have the capability to undertake that task, and need to bring Russia and China on board in the Security Council to do so.

The most significant obligation that arises for the international community will come if there are more widespread atrocities by Gaddafi’s state apparatus against the people. This will invoke the United Nation’s Responsibility to Protect. The UN agreed to this set of principles after the genocide in Rwanda, and it has been reinforced by the General Assembly and the Security Council as recently as 2009. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures are not working, the international community has the responsibility to intervene at first diplomatically, then more coercively, and as a last resort, with military force.

While we are not there yet, and we must hope that the mad dog will slink away, we in the West are at a crossroads. If we stand by and do nothing we will be sending a powerful signal to the Muslim world that our double standards are the norm, rather than the exception. As Liberals, we will be untrue to the very foundation of our political philosophy – that the solidarity of our common humanity crosses frontiers to protect even those we do not know.

Either way, the status quo is no longer an option.

Baroness Kishwer Falkner is Co-Chair of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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13 Comments

  • @Simon McGrath
    And that’s the problem with the UN. There is generally a member of the Security Council with a vested interest (with Iraq it was France and Russia) that will stop them acting. This then gives the dictator in question the confidence to ignore the UN. The only two approaches left being unilateral action or standing back and doing nothing.

    Just think how Isreal may have behaved if they did not know any UN action would be thwarted by the US ???

    The UN security council is not fit for purpose and should be replaced.

  • @Alec Macph
    Sorry Typo. You try typing accurately on a samsung tab..

    By the way I have no obsession with Israel. I am merely pointing out that the UN is a defunct organisation that can be ignored at will by any country with a permanent member as a backer or apologist. IMHO using the security council as the arbiter as to what is illegal or not when it has China and Russia as veto holding members is a joke.

    I too would not care if action was taken without UN backing, but it would actually be more illegal than the Iraq War as there was at least an arguable resolution in that case.

  • Kishwer Falkner 24th Feb '11 - 11:44am

    Simon, yes, getting through agreement on the UNSC is difficult but not impossible. My point is that we should be going for it and since I wrote the piece on Tuesday night, it looks like there is renewed pressure for it at least in the US. Two reasons why we should try for it. One, it would be the right thing to do, and two, it would signal should there be similar violations elsewhere, the relevant dictator may well hesitate (or his airforce, might) if there was a realistic prospect of a no-fly zone being implemented. Additionally, Russia which is more problematic on this one, needs to be exposed for using a veto if it does. If we don’t go for it we will never have clarity.
    Steve and Alec: Countries such as Israel flout UNSC resolutions because their voters let them get away with it, and yes, they have US backing. But they know that this is not a blank cheque position on the part of the US and work very hard to keep the US there. Also, I have just come back from Israel and the West Bank and can tell you they DO care about the UN as they are mounting a huge diplomatic exercise to prevent a unilateral declaration of independence on the part of the PA which the General Assembly might support.

  • Kishwer Falkner 24th Feb '11 - 11:59am

    Alec, If I accepted that countries behave in certain ways for ‘purely venal reasons’ then I would have had a rather wasted education and professional career. I am no UN romantic but it is the best thing we have, which is not to say that we should not try to reform or change it. As for unilateral action, in certain, limited cases countries have to take it and while it may weaken international norms, each case has to be judged on its own merits. As for illegal wars, I supported our intervention in Serbia-Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and have never considered the presumed ‘illegality’ of the Iraq war as watertight case. I am indeed a liberal humanitarian interventionist in the right circumstances, which is why I am keen to give teeth to the R2P.

  • Kishwer Falkner 24th Feb '11 - 10:32pm

    Alec, I don’t think we are going to agree but I will contribute this final point:
    You say in response to my views about the UN that I may say that I’m not a UN romantic …
    “but then go on to refer to the anti-Israel resolutions – or any UNGSC resolutions – as if they’re legally binding. They are not.”
    I’m not sure what you mean by UNGSC resolutions. If you mean the General Assembly (UNGA), I agree entirely that they are non binding, which supports my point that Israel does care about its international reputation, to be so riled about a non-binding action. I don’t think UDI would involve a resolution and did not say it would.
    You also say that Joerg Haider shared a flat with Saif al Islam – or that is the way I read it – when and where was that, as it is new information that is really interesting, and says more about his judgement.
    Finally, your views that some in my party may see me as having blood on my hands: guess what, political parties comprise people with different views! Mine are clearly not so convergent from my colleagues as you make out, but then I suspect that you are one who belongs to a opposing party or does not really understand the Lib Dems. In my experience of 26 years the Liberal Democrats have more times than not taken the right position on foreign affairs in contrast to their opponents, who have left our country rather less credible on the international stage.

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