The horrific violence convulsing Libya is evidence of the price people are paying for the democratic revolutions shaking the Middle East and North Africa. The government’s military response to the uprising in Libya has been by far the most brutal of any until now, and there is no doubt those actions constitute grave human rights violations, war crimes, and perhaps crimes against humanity.

In Egypt, the relatively short-lived military crack-down by the hated security agencies and pro-regime thugs actually strengthened the opposition, reminding the millions in the streets exactly what they were protesting against. In Libya, the Qaddafy regime seems to have turned that lesson on its head, apparently believing that if their response is violent enough, brutal enough, murderous enough, the opposition will stop.

So far, it hasn’t worked. With earlier attacks from helicopter gunships and jet bombers, and with reports of machine gun fire in and around Tripoli continuing at least through March 24, the estimates of Libyans killed range from 300 to more than 1,000 people — but the popular resistance has continued unabated.

What is different in Libya from the earlier iterations of the Arab world’s great democratic revolution of 2011 is that the anti-regime, pro-democracy side that has succeeded in ousting the regime from major cities and most of eastern Libya is now seeing huge sectors of the Libyan military defect directly to the opposition.

Libyan democracy activists in Benghazi and elsewhere are apparently training and taking up arms with military units now on their side, both to defend their cities and, reportedly, to prepare to help the people of Tripoli and the west, still under Qaddafy’s contested control, to finally overthrow the regime. Libya, unlike Egypt and Tunisia or the other states where revolutionary upheavals are underway, is moving towards a military confrontation closer to a civil war.

Social, political, demographic, and other conditions in Libya are significantly different than in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain or elsewhere, so it is not surprising that the progress of the revolution has differed too. The first victories, ousting a dictator in Tunisia followed by the monumental achievement of the Egyptian revolution in getting rid of Mubarak, inspired democratic risings across the Arab world and North Africa, with parallel movements emerging in sub-Saharan Africa as well, in Gabon and elsewhere.

Not only the inspiration but crucially the success of Tunisia and Egypt continue to empower the rest. The regimes and the societies differ widely — but the dissatisfaction is similar all over: widening gaps between wealth and poverty, rising unemployment and a lack of jobs for huge young populations, and most of all, the demand for dignity, hope, and for people to have a say in determining their own lives and how they are governed

The Crumbling of the Qaddafy Regime

In Libya the opposition movement has actually seized control of cities, and whole sectors of the country, even while the embattled Qaddafy regime remains more or less in control of the capitol. The entire eastern parts of Libya, including the key city of Benghazi as well as numerous other cities and the long border with Egypt, all now appear to be in the hands of the opposition, in many cases reportedly with the military forces joining the protesters rather than fighting them or fleeing.

The take-over of cities by the pro-democracy demonstrators seems now to be moving closer to Tripoli in the western part of the country, with reports from the nearby city of Misurata claiming the protesters, backed by defecting army units, have been in control since February 21. The Financial Times quoted a local worker in Misurata describing how “the people are now organising themselves into committees. Some are managing traffic, others are cleaning up after the fighting and the fires of previous days. There are also people handing out water and milk to the population.” It looks very much like the self-organization of Tahrir Square in Egypt, and of the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain – and very much like the non-violent society-wide mobilization of the first Palestinian intifada of 1987-93.

Misurata is only about 125 miles east of Tripoli – meaning that most of the strategic Mediterranean coast from just east of the capital to the Egyptian border (excepting only the area around Sirte, Qaddafy’s tribal homeland) is now apparently controlled by pro-democracy forces. There are reports of a new local council being established in Benghazi, the first city to be taken over by the opposition.

The regime itself continues to splinter, with top officials including the justice minister and the interior minister being the latest to resign. The interior minister, responsible for internal security, said he now supports what he called the “February 17 Revolution,” and urged the military forces to support the Libyan people’s “legitimate demands.” Libyan diplomats around the world, including the ambassadors to the U.S., Indonesia, Australia, India, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, as well as virtually the entire staff of the Libyan mission to the United Nations, have all resigned in protest of the violence.

Other Regimes React to Stem the Tide

The regimes’ responses have differed. Some are desperately trying to make concessions, even before any protests arise.

  • In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where opposition forces have barely showed their presence, emirs and kings have been quick to dole out money ($3,700 per family and free food for 14 months in Kuwait and new social benefits in Saudi Arabia).
  • In Jordan, the still-popular king has been trying to convince a skeptical public that his decision to sack the cabinet and replace another appointed prime minister should somehow satisfy them. (It hasn’t.)
  • The King of Bahrain launched a vicious crack-down on the largely Shi’a protesters demanding an end to the years of discrimination against their majority community, but backed off under international pressure and turned to a series of political and financial incentives to buy new loyalty, including release of some political prisoners. Many protesters are still demanding the transformation to a constitutional monarchy, but others have now escalated to demand an end to the king’s role altogether.
  • In Yemen, the president has pledged not to run again in the next election and other meager reforms, but his offer has been insufficient and the regime has continued using force against protesters remaining in the streets.

Democracy is rising (and it has been thrilling to watch union supporters in Wisconsin claim the Egyptian victory as their own inspiration).

The International Response

With Libya providing huge percentages of the oil and gas imported by powerful European countries – especially Italy – and with the UK working hard the last several years to burnish Libya’s image so that British Petroleum could claim a privileged stake in the Libyan oil industry and General Dynamics UK could sign lucrative weapons contracts, western countries came late and soft to criticize Qaddafy’s violent assault. The UnitedStates had not moved as far as most European allies in rehabilitating the Qaddafy regime after an initial embrace following Tripoli’s agreement to dismantle its nuclear programs in 2003, but still moved too slowly to fully condemn the regime.

Only on February 23 President Obama explicitly condemned the violence, and called the bloodshed “outrageous” and “unacceptable.” He said, “these actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.” Obama spoke clearly of the importance of international action, and praised the statement released by the Security Council the day before. That UN statement included some important issues, including a condemnation of the violence, a call on the Libyan government to abide by human rights and international humanitarian law and to allow medical, humanitarian, and human rights workers in to the country, and a reference to the need for accountability for perpetrators of the violence.

But the statement was merely a Security Council press release, lacking the enforcement power of an actual resolution, and falls even below the status of a formal “presidential statement” which indicates Council unanimity. There was no decision, for example, on what should be the obvious starting points of international responsibility: freezing all assets of Qaddafy and his family, imposing an immediate end on all weapons sales and a halt to any weapons or security goods currently in the pipeline to Libya, and referring the Libyan regime’s violence to the International Criminal Court for immediate investigation and prosecution.

In his speech, President Obama stated he had “asked my administration to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis. This includes those actions we may take and those we will coordinate with our allies and partners, or those that we’ll carry out through multilateral institutions.” His care in distinguishing between what the United States would insist on doing on its own, as opposed to actions taken with allies or in multilateral venues such as the United Nations, may be an indication why there was no stronger Security Council response: that the U.S. wants to maintain control of the response to Libya, not leave it in UN hands.

If the Council had decided, for instance, to hold Libyan officials and soldiers directly accountable for alleged war crimes against a civilian population by referring the issue immediately to the International Criminal Court, what kind of a precedent would that set, and what other political leaders or soldiers responsible for civilian deaths might face that same method of accountability — in Afghanistan or Pakistan, for instance? If the Council had passed a resolution stating that top officials of all governments and corporations who provided weapons to the Libyan regime should be held accountable for how those weapons are being used, what precedent would that set for the powerful weapons-exporting governments and corporations now arming military forces and thus enabling the barrage of human rights violations and war crimes in places such as Sri Lanka or the DRC, or perhaps Israel?

The UN Security Council should reconvene now to pass a binding, enforceable resolution. It should demand an immediate halt to the attacks, call for immediate access for international humanitarian and human rights workers, and refer the issue to the International Court of Justice to initiate on an emergency basis a full investigation and prosecution of those responsible. It should make clear that not only top decision-makers but all soldiers and mercenaries carrying out illegal orders will be held accountable for their actions in the ICC. The resolution should require that governments and corporations with ties to the Libyan regime — especially those in Europe and the U.S. — immediately sever all military ties, cancel all military contracts, and withdraw any military equipment that may be in the pipeline, with criminal liability for those who may have enabled the illegal acts already underway in Libya.

Next Steps for the United States

There has been a growing demand, in the United States from powerful neo-conservative war-mongers and from some of the most progressive members of Congress, to establish a no-fly zone in Libya. The call has also come from former Libyan officials who have defected from the regime. But at the moment that would be a mistake. There have been no reports of air strikes since February 21; the regime’s current assaults are using land-based heavy weapons. While it is certainly possible a desperate Qaddafy could lash out once again by trying to send his warplanes aloft to attack his own people, it isn’t clear he has loyal pilots left to answer his call. The discussion of a no-fly zone in the Security Council would almost certainly become the sole means of responding to the Libyan crisis – even though it would likely provide little protection against the actual threats facing the Libyan people, especially in and around the capitol – and would serve as a distraction from other actions that might actually help.

The political cost of such a decision, given its likely inability to provide real protection, must be weighed against the lessons of the 1990s-era no-fly zone the U.S. and Britain established in Iraq. The no-fly zone was imposed unilaterally, although President Bill Clinton and other officials often claimed, mendaciously, that it was authorized by the United Nations when it was in fact never mentioned in any Security Council resolution. As documented by the United Nations, U.S.-UK enforcement of the no-fly zone in Iraq resulted in the deaths of several hundred Iraqi civilians.

It is not clear that any country other than the U.S. could carry out enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya (there are even questions whether the U.S. military, already stretched in illegitimate wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, could field such an operation, let alone to be prepared to start immediately). So giving a Security Council imprimatur to the U.S. (or NATO, which would still be relying on U.S. airpower) to define, impose, determine violations of, and enforce through bombing raids a Libyan no-fly zone unlikely to actually protect Libyan civilians, is likely to result in a much longer-term U.S. intervention than Council members anticipate, and does not pass the legitimacy test.

If the fighting in Libya continues or escalates, an accountability-focused UN Security Council resolution authorizing a Blue Helmet contingent of medical, other humanitarian workers, human rights monitors, and investigators from the International Criminal Court, recruited from neighboring countries and sent with armed escort if necessary, would likely be far more useful in providing actual protection to Libyan civilians during this crisis, than imposing a high-profile, but not very useful and extremely dangerous no-fly zone.

The Libyan leader continues to escalate his threats. But while the violence may continue for a bit longer, the international standing of the Libyan regime and its ability to govern the country, have collapsed. The territory, cities, and population still under the regime’s domination are all dwindling rapidly. Qaddafy is losing control. Democracy is gaining.


Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power. Sign up to the New Internationalism email list to get her analysis delivered directly to your inbox

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