Libya: Smuggling War as Human Rights



The President was not the infamously oily George ‘Dubya’ Bush, notorious for statements endorsing the benefits of dictatorships, but incumbent President Barack Obama, recent winner of one Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech, delivered in his usual rich and warm – even holy, timbre, usually found in preachers, endorsed ‘just war’ against the backdrop of the ‘war on terror’.

In her book, ‘Every man in this village is a liar’, Megan Stack, previously the Los Angeles Times correspondent for the Middle East, writes, “I was a reporter and I wanted to see. Only after covering it for years did I understand that the war on terror never existed. It was not a real thing… It was hollow, it was essentially nothing but a unifying myth for a complicated scramble of mixed impulses and social theories and night terrors and cruelty and business interests…all netted together under a heading.”

It is a heading with no expiry date; a heading that should read of wars smuggled through collective conscientiousness as human rights, freedom, and democracy. And while we have identified, in hindsight, the fiction of the ‘war on terror’, which was extended to Africa, we are still too believing of ‘specialists’, and too mistrusting of our own common sense, when it comes to the present – still raw and wounding to ‘media consumers’ one million miles from the scene of the crime.

That scene depicts Libya, formerly under the mad cartoonish rule of lifetime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. On the surface, the oil-rich north Africa country seemed like the ideal venue for foreign military ‘intervention’ via the ‘Right To Protect’ (R2P), a doctrine that was created under the umbrella of the ‘war on terror’, post-9/11, 2001; a ‘right to intervention’ – by virtue of the ‘jus ad bellum’ or just war narrative. It was re-characterised as the ‘right to protection’ via the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS).

Libya’s ‘protection’ from the brutal Gaddafi by the US and NATO

Like Gabon, Libya is oil-rich. It hosts Africa’s largest proven reserves of crude oil, generating $40 billion in 2010 from exports. Unlike Gabon, however, Gaddafi’s regime was neither receptive to the US nor Europe. The liberation of Libya by the foreign US-NATO forces, nonetheless, evidenced the immediate creation and recognition of the National Transitional Council (NTC) as a legitimate government with the US endorsing it as soon as it took blunt shape. Hillary Clinton described the US’s view of Gaddafi’s regime as one “no longer having legitimate authority in Libya.”

The world of NGOs applauded it – perceived as a good sign for global media consumers. And according to Amnesty International, “After 42 years of brutal repression, Libyans are today looking ahead to building a state based on respect for human rights and the rule of law. In the last seven months they have paid a heavy price standing against repression and injustice. The new Libyan authorities, represented by the National Transitional Council (NTC), face great challenges….”

Certainly, Libyans were deprived on civil and political rights (CP), critical first generation rights on which any state-citizen relationship is based. But most of Africa does, more specifically, many of the regimes backed by European governments and the US, including Gabon. Nevertheless, Libya has worked as a ‘theater’ of just war quite well, with Tripoli having, of late, replaced Timbuktu as the newest godforsaken city. Why?

As with the central motif running through Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the latter is spared from the cruelty and depravity of his nature, reflected only in the picture – the ‘most magical of mirrors’, Gray is forever beyond question, because, as one elderly socialite tells him, ‘you were made to be good – you look so good.’ So, removing the buffoon-like brutal Gaddafi has the appearance of ethics. But is this the case in context?

Ironically, Libya’s tin pot regime shot past democracies like South Africa, Botswana, Mauritius and other nations (including Brazil, Venezuela etc) in various criteria including health (under five-year mortality rate). Libya, classified by the World Bank as an upper middle income nation, experienced to a greater extent the economic and social rights that many US-backed regimes have deprived citizens of, backed by World Bank data. This includes literacy (89%), life expectancy (75 years), urban development (sanitation facilities) 97%, GNI per capita ($12 320).

Who is the most threatening figure on the African continent?

This is not, of course, a defense of Gaddafi. In a recent article, published on Pambazuka, I wrote about the two fundamental needs if the integrity of ‘human rights’ was to be realised, ie: an African Union mechanism to remove authoritarian and anti-democratic governments, accompanied by the need for democratisation of the world’s primary warring bodies that also double as the UN Security Council.

The point of the piece was that somehow, in the simplistic rhetoric presented to us, rational solutions seemed to have been forgotten – that the issue is not a choice between Gaddafi or the US-NATO, but systems that need changing, including that of the Security Council. The article, perceived by African readers as advocating support in favor of the NATO-US mission, received bad feedback. But interestingly, much of the response was driven by fear, caution, and suspicion: not of Gaddafi’s removal, but of the precedent that it would set and the actors involved. Ultimately, defense of Gaddafi equated defense of African sovereignty from the old invaders rather than Gaddafi for any just merit.

The declaration of war on Libya was on several levels: the military, the media and the flagrant misuse of the ‘rights’ doctrines. On their website, NATO described the history of their mission: “Since March 24, an unprecedented coalition of NATO Allies and non-NATO contributors having been protecting civilians under threat of attack in Libya, enforcing an arms embargo and maintaining a no-fly zone.” As NATO Secretary General Rasmussen explained, under ”Operation Unified Protector,” NATO is doing ”nothing more, nothing less” than meeting its mandates under United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

However, the no fly zone effectively acted as a war strategy by blocking Gaddafi’s own defense, wrecking his air command and control systems, with the logical land-based outcomes. Is not the UNSC, which undermined the African Union’s peaceful resolution on the issue of Libya, the real threat to international security, and by default, delegitimised of any peace-keeping/policeman role?

Was Gaddafi the most threatening figure on the African continent? Or was he convenient as a pretext to push through military missions vying to establish bases in Africa, including that of USAFRICOM, which led the early weeks of the military mission in Libya?

The ethical appearance of any defense of Gaddafi, nevertheless, does not look good – whatever the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is selectively waging war for selectively endorsed human rights concepts at selective times against selective enemies. Meanwhile those making the selections appear as good and noble and remain difficult to fault, even as they have just smuggled through ‘war as human rights’ – justified, signed and sealed.

Wilde concludes his book with Gray – ever flawless, stabbing the ‘magical mirror’ – a gruesome portrayal of his character, to destroy this ‘other’ to his nature that gives him the deceptive reprieve to his actions. And as the picture is destroyed, which Gray must do, to take himself back, so is he finally revealed, physically, as the bearer of his actions.

If the AU has an objection to the UNSC, now would be the ideal time for African governments to catalyse a change.

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