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49 responses to “Libya, human rights and politics”

  1. Jane

    A very good read- thankyou 🙂

  2. John D

    Good Drum article Mark. It highlights the complexities and conundrums of foreign intervention to protect citizens and human rights. Maybe I missed it but there are countries where intervention is not a serious option – Think China for example.
    I can understand why Obama is being so careful. The states are good at doing the things that can be done from the air but have struggled again and again when US troops are working in countries like Iraq where the language and culture avvery different and not everyone is your friend.

  3. Hal9000

    I think you’re right to dismiss the crude anti-imperialism of some sections of the left, Mark, but I don’t think that negates the anti-imperialist analysis.

    Again, I think you are right to point to the problem of illegitimacy in dictatorships, and to the impact of this recognition in international relations. However, the lesson that will be drawn here is that the way to remain entrenched as a dictatorship will be to toe the US line: only the US is capable of authorising serious military intervention.

    Last, you are right to point to the legacy of Evatt. Evans, despite his homilies to the contrary, is as guilty as anyone of abandoning that heritage.

  4. Katz

    The precautionary principle also needs to be respected.

    Successful humanitarian interventions also stimulate an appetite for inhumane interventions.

    Think of how many folks the “Vietnam Syndrome” saved between 1975 and 1991, when Saddam re-awakened the dragon.

    And let us not forget that between 1975 and 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed without the help of a single American boot on the ground.

    And on the subject of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jimmy Carter, whom Mark referred to quite sniffily, doesn’t get sufficient credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Let us not forget that Carter’s insistence on some concessions of civil rights in the Soviet Union enabled the rise of the anti-communist dissident movement in the Soviet Union. The later persecution of that movement stirred wider groups into action.

    There is a lesson in that to be learned about how to defeat tyrannies.

  5. Katz

    Sorry Mark, a reread reveals that you did make that point. But I still think you give Carter insufficient credit.

  6. Hal9000

    Yes, Katz, but there are plenty of other historical parallels. The scenes of the unarmed people storming the barracks in Benghazi recall other revolutions.

  7. Hal9000

    [email protected]

    The ongoing efforts of Evans to revise history ought never to be left unexposed. Still, I understand the limitations.

  8. Katz

    I can’t think of many major revolutions that did not also include a civil war.

    The only question is whether the civil war precedes or follows the formal transfer of authority from one principle to another.

    Interestingly, the collapse of communist regimes in the Soviet bloc may count as examples. However, in most cases the old nomenklatura reinvented themselves and reintegrated themselves into organs of the new regimes.

    These communist chameleon acts are a tribute to the potency of leninism as an interpretive tool and as a guide for successful political action. Worst luck.

  9. sg

    I’m getting the impression that a better analysis of Obama’s motives than “imperialist” would be “wtf?” He really gives the impression that he’s just making it up as he goes along, somewhat incompetently. He really is a huge disappointment, isn’t he? (Not necessarily unexpected, but still…)

  10. Hal9000

    Yes, well, Katz. I’m not sure that the collapse of Communist regimes in Europe really count as revolutions, but then this shouldn’t be an argument about taxonomy.

    I suspect what’s changed from the historical parallels has been the technology of warfare. Ghaddafi unleashed aircraft and tanks on popular demonstrations. These weren’t available tools of violence in the historical examples. A regime that has and is prepared to use modern military technology against an unarmed population places itself in a special place. This is, after all, the charge against the Israeli regime in Lebanon and Gaza. Eliminating Ghaddafi’s advantage in technology has been the essence of the intervention. If he has popular support, he’ll win the civil war, unless the intervention rules change.

    Oops, perhaps the last should have gone to the roundtable discussion.

    At any event, it’s clear that, as with Howard’s reluctant intervention in Timor, public opinion has driven military action here, unlike the carefully prepared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where public opinion was manufactured.

  11. Katz

    The Chinese government deployed tanks in Tienanmen Square.

    Pinochet used fighter jets against the Allende regime.

    Churchill used the RAF against a Shiite insurgency in Iraq, indiscriminately bombing villages.

    Napoleon used grapeshot against the Jacobins.

    Interestingly, the balance of weaponry has shifted away from governments since the AK-47 has become popular. A couple of days into the uprising, Benghazi was bristling with AK-47s. I’d guess that a large proportion of those AKs were owned by local islamists.

    The AK never made an appearance in Tripoli.

  12. Paul Burns

    I don’t know that Obama is just making it up as he goes along. I think its necessary to look at the Libyan NFZ in light of what happened when there were belated or no interventions in crisis situations eg Ruanda, Bosnia & c.,
    I don’t think Obama or anybody elsae wanted that kind of massacre on their conscience. The Libyan intervention seems to have been a very personal response from Western leaders, almost a particular response to Gadaffi’s threats.
    Where the politics seem to come in is the non-intervention in Bahrrein, Yemen, Syria. Because to intervene in these places could produce international complications with the Saudis (who have intervened on the absolutists’ side) in Bahrein, Iran as regards Libya, or presumably the encouragement that might be given to Al Quaeda in regard to Yemen.
    Personally, despite the fact that I am definitely of the far left, I’m always a bit suspicious about anti-imperialist/anti-colonialist arguments. Life in much more likely to be in a spectrum of peculiar greys.

  13. Brendon

    An interesting viepoint from a Libyan relayed by a westerner who lives in the M.E.:

    1. Gaddafi was telling the truth as he saw it when he said that the rebellion was being fomented by Al-Qaeda. My friend, whom we shall call Ibrahim, believes that there is a strong element of extremist support underpinning the rebel resistance. He also said that many of the people in the videos from Benghazi did not appear to him to be Libyan.

    2. Benghazi is seen in Libya as a poor relation to Tripoli. Many educated and talented people who grow up there end up in Tripoli. This is not to insult the people of Benghazi, but Ibrahim’s view is that Tripoli is the intellectual centre of Libya. It is highly Westernised. Many of the other cities are less so.

    3. Gaddafi has strong support in Western Libya – not just a few thousand die-hard fanatics, as is often portrayed by Western media, but hundreds of thousands who have benefited from his regime and would class themselves as loyalists.

    4. If Gaddafi and his family fall, there is a danger that an Iraq-style civil war could follow, especially if Gaddafi loyalists find themselves disenfranchised, as was the case with Baath Party members in Iraq.

    5. The Libyan exiles, some of whom expect to return to a post-Gaddafi Libya, are not an impressive bunch. They are out of touch with modern Libya, and would be unlikely to play a leading role in a new government.

    6. There a various ethnic groups in Libya – Bedouin, Berber, people of Mediterranean stock – from Turkey, Cyprus and Malta. There is a serious danger of conflict between these groups, with the possibility – in a state of anarchy – of ethnic cleansing.

    7. Even as things stand, a negotiated solution would be the best outcome. Gaddafi is a very tough customer, and if backed into a corner would create as much havoc as possible as he went down in flames.


  14. sublime cowgirl

    It’ll be interesting how this, and the rest of the middle east change, plays out amongst member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Council.

    With reference to ‘Human Rights’, as far as i understand, OIC reps to the UN have usually deferred to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, rather than the UN Declaration we’re familiar with (which they generally perceive as too judeo/christian/western).


  15. sg

    I think the world could do worse than to live under the rules described in that wikipedia link, sublime cowgirl. I can’t think of many members of the OIC who have lived up to even a small part of it though…

  16. Brendon

    Sorry, @18 was supposed to go into the roundtable thread.

  17. Tim Macknay

    Katz @4

    The precautionary principle also needs to be respected.

    Presumably you’re using this as a very loose metaphor since the precautionary principle is a concept from environmental law that doesn’t really map all that well onto international relations.

    In fact, the precautionary principle generally states that where there is uncertainty about the outcome it is better to take action than to delay.

    This is probably a bit pedantic, but hell, it’s a blog thread.

  18. Fran Barlow

    Tim said:

    In fact, the precautionary principle generally states that where there is uncertainty about the outcome it is better to take action than to delay.

    In this case I’d say the principle maps pretty well from its origin in environmental policy.

    While there was some uncertainty about likely casualties or even the precise intent of the Libyan forces, the prospective downside harm was great and the uncertainty fairly minor.

    It’s a bit like evacuations during Yasi. With hindsight, some were wasteful of resources, but again one could not know and the consequences of not evacuating if the storm had hiot that site direct would have been less acceptable than any waste.

  19. Katz

    ‘Fraid not, old sport.

    Though the environmental movement has embraced the principle, they did not invent it. Wiki informs me that the principle began with German Home Economics during the 1930s. Ironically, perhaps, those ideas didn’t catch on with any contemporary German government. One lives and learns, hopefully.

    Wiki is as good as any working definition:

    The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.

    Note that the burden of proof test favours inaction, which is precisely my intent in invoking the principle above. In this case, the folks taking the action worthy of critical scrutiny are lefties cheerleading for western intervention against Gaddafi.

    I admit that commentary on geopolitics or social ethics isn’t “scientific” in any common use of the term.

  20. PatrickB

    ” He really is a huge disappointment, isn’t he? (Not necessarily unexpected, but still…)”
    No I don’t think so. Given the dire circumstances he inherited it’s to be expected that he would be cautious, equivocal and reasonably credible. The US population in general don’t won’t to be involved but now they are there they want an exit strategy. Given that you haven’t given us any insight into how you think that strategy may play out I think it’s a bit rich to now start blaming Obama.

    This has nothing to do with US imperialism and everything to do with trying to do the right thing when there are some very powerful reasons not to. You need to cut people some slack.

  21. sg

    I didn’t say it did, Patrickb, and I fully understand that Obama inherited a difficult situation.

  22. Tim Macknay

    Fran @24

    In this case I’d say the principle maps pretty well from its origin in environmental policy.

    I agree. Katz suggested though that its application in this case would favour non-intervention.

    Katz @25

    ‘Fraid not, old sport. Though the environmental movement has embraced the principle, they did not invent it. Wiki informs me that the principle began with German Home Economics during the 1930s.

    Hmmm. On my reading, the wiki entry supports my view that it’s predominantly an environmental concept, regardless of the ultimate origin.

    … Note that the burden of proof test favours inaction

    I’ll grant you that there are different formulations of it, but the most well known (and widely copied) is the Rio Declaration version, which promotes action (i.e. action to redress environmental threats) over inaction where there is uncertainty about the nature or impact of a threat. However, I’ll concede that if the “action” in question is the action seen to be causing the potential harm or damage rather than the action taken to redress it, then the principle could be seen to favour inaction.

    This is getting O/T so I’ll say no more on it.

  23. Brendon

    Mark @22

    Mark, what do you think of the analysis in the article that seems supportive of the intervention. Especially with lines like this:

    “The U.S. is not invading Libya, but engaged in a limited air campaign akin to Iraq’s decades long no-fly zone (a more apt comparison)”

    I have an issue with that. First, the US/British inspired sanctions and NFZ that they championed through the UN caused greater human destruction than anything Saddam did in either his attacks on the Kurds, or his attacks against the Shiite uprising that Bush I stirred up. To describe what happened back then as a limited air campaign is misleading.

    To quote the man who was the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq during some of that time, Denis Halliday:

    I was driven to resignation because I refused to continue to take Security Council orders, the same Security Council that had imposed and sustained genocidal sanctions on the innocent of Iraq. I did not want to be complicit. I wanted to be free to speak out publicly about this crime.

    And above all, my innate sense of justice was and still is outraged by the violence that UN sanctions have brought upon, and continues to bring upon, the lives of children, families – the extended families, the loved ones of Iraq. There is no justification for killing the young people of Iraq, not the aged, not the sick, not the rich, not the poor.

    Some will tell you that the leadership is punishing the Iraqi people. That is not my perception, or experience from living in Baghdad. And were that to be the case – how can that possibly justify further punishment, in fact collective punishment, by the United Nations? I don’t think so. And international law has no provision for the disproportionate and murderous consequences of the ongoing UN embargo – for well over 12 long years.


    By referring to those policies against Iraq then as a “decades long no-fly zone” he seems to be air brushing recent history. And he also seems to be saying what was really a crime against humanity (the sanctions, and NFZ policies) was acceptable and nothing to be too worried about or to be compared to the subsequent war.

  24. Rewi


    I think the right to protect is easy to give life to when dealing with pariah states. I also think that the current wave of discontent in North Africa and (potentially) the Arabian peninsula has proven to be too good an opportunity for intervention to let pass up.

    I find it strains credulity to suggest that there has been no foreign incitement/encouragement/agency in the events in Libya. If that is right, might it be more appropriate to consider a comparison with the Bay of Pigs than Iraq? Unlike that situation, here the instigators/supporters of an uprising have at least taken the bull by the horns and look like they’ll see the matter through. Unless Russia kicks up some more.

    The right to protect is nascent and in many ways, I think, it’s legitimacy will come to be determined by what takes place after the conflict has been resolved. If indeed this is democratic reforms and pluralism then advocates of human rights based intervention will have a much needed fillip. Will they then use it to advocate interventions in other states? Only, I would suggest, where Great Power politics allows. Even the potential of legitimacy for the right to protect a ‘successful’ outcome in Libya would provide, I think, would not suffice to allow intervention in, say, Burma (the last time Gareth Evans was pushing it).

  25. Fran Barlow

    Personally, I regard the distinction between an NFZ and an invasion as specious. If you occupy another jurisdiction’s airspace,then that is an invasion, even if there are no boots on the ground.

    The May 2003 COW events in Iraq were not an invasion but an escalation, IMO.

    For most of human history, wars were fought without aircraft and at quite close quarters. It’s understandable then that most people think of an invasion as occupation of terrain. Here though it is very clear that the enforcers of the NFZ are acting in concert with local forces on the ground, in an attempt to have one of the parties to the conflict defeat the other, however much they may hide behind the “the obligation to protect”. Given that the Gaddhafi forces are shelling population centres with heavy artillery, the distinction between protecting civilians and acting at the TNC’s air wing was always going to be hard to maintain. As long as the regime exists, it is clear that civilians will be in harm’s way.

    The problem is a domestic political one in that the parties to the NFZ want to avoid mission creep. They do not want troops coming back dead or being captured and paraded. They want to maintain a quick and simple exit strategy. So long as this image can be maintained, the politicians backing the NATO-led forces can probably get away with it — for the moment.

    It’s worth noting though that they have a very significant investment in a speedy defeat of Gaddhafi. If that happens and a new and apparently legitimate regime rapidly coalesces in Tripoli, Obama and Cameron will have been vindicated in the eyes of most British and Americans. The tricky thing then would be what happens in places like Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and of course the Occupied Territories, for a precedent would have been set. Obama has tried very hard to cast this exercise in terms of its peculiarities, precisely in order to avoid being bound to act similarly elsewhere, but it is far from clear that this is how most in the Middle East will see matters.

    And of course if things go wrong in Libya — and that only needs to be a protracted and expensive stalemate with a significant daily death toll — then that is not going to play out well for Obama and Cameron at all.

  26. John D

    Good summary Fran. I suspect that Obama understands this uncertainty very well and is trying to avoid getting himself in a position where he will be obliged to inject ground forces into a conflict that may be complicated by tribal loyalties. Complicated too if the rebels lack the military experience to be effective fighters when it comes to hand to hand conflict.
    Part of the problem with evaluating Obama is that the man is subtle and needs to be given the state of Congress. Too many people want to see dramatic statements even if they are counter productive.

  27. Con

    I didn’t like the article I have to say. I think it rests on premises which are factual incorrect, but which are comforting to believe.

    This is the whole point of law and norms. They can be invoked by others, and other than by the powerful

    If this were true, then would not GW Bush have been charged for his war crimes before an international tribunal? In place of the rule of law, and formal justice, we had only the brave Iraqi journo Muntada Al-Zaidi hurling his shoes at Bush’s face and shouting angrily “This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”

    I rest my case.

  28. Con

    I won’t be writing off the “dead category” of anti-imperialism until imperialism itself is written off, thank you very much.

  29. GregM

    “…we had only the brave Iraqi journo Muntada Al-Zaidi hurling his shoes at Bush’s face and shouting angrily “This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.

    I rest my case.

    True, Con, true. Particularly true as this was the very same Muntada Al-Zaidi who regularly got up at Saddam Hussein’s press conferences and threw his shoes at him with the very same imprecation on behalf of the widows, the orphans and those Saddam killed in Iraq He was notable and incredibly brave in his condemnations of the slaughter of Kurds and Shiites- not to mention Kuwaitis.

    He is a moral clarion to us all.

    Or maybe the issues of human rights and international law are a tad more complex than your understanding of them.

  30. Con

    GregM, thanks for bringing up the case of Saddam Hussein Al-Tikriti, which actually proves the point I was making about the partiality of the law – just as good an example as that of GW Bush.

    Saddam was indeed a dictator and not in practice subject to Iraqi law (this is part of the definition of dictatorship really). There was no way he could’ve been tried there for his war crimes against Iran, or against Iraqi Kurds, communists, Islamists, etc. And if Mr Zaidi had dared to assault him while he was the Iraqi president he’d certainly have copped something worse than the severe beatings and several months of imprisonment he got for his assault on Bush.

    Yet Saddam Hussein was eventually brought before a tribunal, tried and convicted of war crimes, and hanged, something which would’ve been inconceivable at the time the crimes were committed. How did this come about? Because Saddam had made the mistake of falling out with the US over Kuwait. Prior to that debacle, Saddam had been backed by the US – right through the war with Iran they were enthusiastic supporters, irrespective of Saddam’s crimes that they were well aware of and did nothing about.

    Saddam was not brought to justice because international law is an effective way to bring about international justice. Not at all. He got his beans because the US government decided to eliminate his regime, because he was no longer a reliable ally (or “servant”, more accurately; let’s not exaggerate his importance).

    Am I being too cynical or “realist”? Everyone knows this.

    Similarly, the legal justification for the NATO bombardment of Libya is weak. The idea that legalities are actually behind the attack, in any substantive way, is very weak. And the idea that is helpful to pretend that the law is more powerful than it actually is – that’s just as weak.

  31. PeterTB

    Prior to that debacle, Saddam had been backed by the US – right through the war with Iran they were enthusiastic supporters

    Nonsense. The US was only ever a minor backer of Saddam – and then only because of the Iranian embassy matter.

    Saddam – like Gadaffi – mainly counted the USSR and France as his backers.

  32. Katz

    So the US was only slightly pregnant, PeterTB?

  33. Brendon

    PeterTB, @37

    The US, amongst other things borrowed Saddam five billion dollars to wage the Iranian war. Of course this loan from the US was just to clean its tracks. Saddam purchased weapons and tanks etc mainly from the Europe and Britain.

    See how it works?

  34. PeterTB

    Katz & Brendon. My response was to Con’s claim that the US were “enthusiastic supporters” of Iraq – which is clearly nonsense. Reluctant supporters – and minor supporters at that.

    Saddam, like Gadaffi was/is one of yours.

  35. PeterTB

    one of yours

    Sorry – that’s probably unfair. Let me amend that to “one of Russia’s “best friends””.

  36. Con

    one of yours

    PeterB, you’re just trolling now aren’t you? Talk to the hand, dude

  37. Katz

    US intel on the Iranian armed forces provided to Iraq was probably the difference between stalemate and defeat in their war.

    I’d call that definitive support for Saddam.

  38. Hal9000

    The level of US support for the Saddam Hussein regime can be gauged by its response to an unprovoked Iraqi Exocet attack on one of its warships, the USS Stark. Did they sever all relations with Saddam and demand reparations? Not a bit of it, they in fact launched air attacks on Iranian installations. The parallels with events in the Mediterranean in 1967 were duly noted in Baghdad and elsewhere in the middle east.

  39. sublime cowgirl

    sg @20.

    Either you haven’t understood its implications, or you are happy to have your human rights subject to Sharia law. It is the reason why OIC block countries on the United Nations can jail women for having extra marital sex, or chop of the hands of thieves and still feel they are upholding Human rights.

    I’m not saying Sharia law is blanket bad. In fact, there are many progressive and positive aspects which arguably could make our western communities much richer than the hollow individualistic positions we’ve adopted. However, the nasty bits are without question a backward step and incompatible with modern western human rights.

  40. Andrew Reynolds

    That provision of intel then served US interests by keeping Iran from winning. As with the policy of helping the mujahaddin in Afghanistan it later turned around to bite them – and badly – does not mean that it was the wrong policy given what was happening at the time.
    Saddam was supported by just about everyone against Iran and for good (at the time) reasons.
    Thankfully, the situation has changed and so has international law (at least in practice). To me, we should be pleased that it has.
    It’s always difficult to work out which “side” of politics any given dictator comes from. To me, the usual Left / Right stuff is rubbish. What matters is those who see a strong role for the State against those who see a strictly limited role. All dictators clearly fit into the first category.

  41. sg

    I think you misunderstand me, sublime cowgirl. “can do worse than live under those rules” and “those rules are cool” are two very different things! I particularly liked the ideas about opposition to torture and enslavement, and freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and the statements about women’s equality seem okay to me. Saying that there are no punishments except those in sharia law doesn’t mean they have to be followed, either. I presume, e.g. that Oman is a party to this declaration and its laws on women’s rights are completely different to Saudi Arabia’s.

    Nonetheless, very few of teh states in the OIC follow the parts of that statement that I think are good. e.g. “freedom from arbitrary imprisonment.”

  42. Katz

    Saddam was supported by just about everyone against Iran and for good (at the time) reasons.

    Something appears to be wrong with your ethical compass AR.

    Saddam initiated a war of aggression against Iran in much the same way as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. You may recall that Iran was in the throes of their own revolution at the time and in no mood to fight a war.

  43. Chav

    ‘As a US senator said in New Hampshire when asked whether he would leave troops in Iraq to prevent genocide: “Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of US forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now, where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife, which we haven’t done. We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan which we haven’t done.”

    His name? Barack Obama.’