Humanitarian Intervention,  Libya

Being Blunt

Guest post by Sackcloth & Ashes

On 14th September the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), chaired by Crispin Blunt (Con, Reigate), published its report on the UK’s role in the international intervention in the Libyan civil war of 2011. It provides a stark condemnation of British policy towards Libya both during the rising against its former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and afterwards, stating in particular that the lack of a strategy to shape post-Gaddafi Libya contributed to its collapse as a state, an anarchic civil war, a refugee crisis and the rise of IS in that country. Furthermore, it goes as far as to argue that the decision to intervene along with France, the USA and other NATO allies was utterly misconceived, condemning in particular the decision to interpret UN Security Council Resolution 1973 as a mandate for regime change, and asserting that the justification for launching air strikes on Gaddafi’s forces was based on an ‘overstated’ assessment on the threat to Libyan civilians, and an under-appreciation of the strength of Islamist factions within the rebellion.

The charge of inadequate planning for the aftermath of Gaddafi’s downfall is fair comment and deserves further examination. The accusation that the grounds for intervention were themselves flawed had me wondering what planet Blunt and his fellow MPs were living on.

Let us firstly remind ourselves what had happened in Libya in February 2011. On the 17th of that month there were mass demonstrations in Benghazi and Tobruk against Gaddafi, inspired by the ‘people power’ revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Regime security forces responded by gunning down demonstrators, sparking off an armed revolt among the populace. On 22nd February the Libyan dictator appeared in public in Green Square in Tripoli, delivering a furious rant against the ‘drug addicts, jihadis and rats’ who had taken up arms against him, and declaring that he and his followers ‘will cleanse Libya inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway by alleyway, person by person, until the country is cleansed of dirt and scum’.

In spite of this speech, the FAC loftily declared that ‘the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence’, and that ‘[his] 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians’. ‘Large-scale attacks’ were of course unprecedented, as up until that point there had indeed been no large-scale rebellions, but the idea that the Libyan dictator was somehow averse to slaughtering his own people is a travesty of the truth. In June 1996 at least 1,270 political prisoners were butchered out of hand in Abu Salim prison.

A closer examination of the Colonel’s foreign policy also suggests that he had no problems killing large numbers of innocents. The man armed the fucking IRA, for Christ’s sake. He trained the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor and helped set up the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone. You’d have to have Jeremy Corbyn’s level of awareness to miss out little facts like that.

There is something inherently bizarre about the FAC’s retrospective judgement that Gaddafi’s threats were just hot air. If the experience of humanitarian tragedies from Rwanda to Sinjar have taught us anything, it is that the time lag between a threat to commit mass murder and its committal is often a brief one, and the ‘proof’ of an intent to commit genocide is the fact that a genocide has taken place. Should we really have sat back and waited to see if Gaddafi was serious about wiping out Benghazi? The death toll aside, what kind of consequences (state failure, refugee outflows, emergence of vengeful jihadis, etc) would we have seen?

The FAC also explores – if that’s the right word – the possibility that Saif Gaddafi may have provided a means of brokering a peaceful settlement in Libya. Yes, that’s right. That’s the same Saif who embarrassed the London School of Economics and its governing board, including one Shami Chakrabarti. Blunt and his fellow MPs declared that ‘[it] is ultimately unknowable whether Saif Gaddafi possessed the influence, character, judgment and experience to broker a ceasefire and to implement national political reform’.

That’s one way of looking at it. The other way is to highlight a speech which Saif made on national television on the 20th February 2011, when he proclaimed that ‘Gaddafi is not [Hosni] Mubarak or [Zine al-Abedine] Ben Ali, he is the leader of a people. Tens of thousands of Libyans are coming to defend him … we will fight to the last man and woman and bullet’.

At the time of this speech, Tripoli was experiencing anti-regime demonstrations in solidarity with the Eastern rebellion. Hours after it, loyalist troops and security forces attacked the protesters with armoured vehicles and heavy-calibre machine guns, killing scores in the process. So much for the ‘reformist’ and conciliatory Saif.

The composition of the committee doesn’t quite explain this bizarre report. Granted, it includes Daniel Kawczynski (an apologist for the Saudi royal family), and the little Englander Andrew Rosindell, but it also includes Ann Clwyd, a consistent foe of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime who stayed true to her salt even when the mainstream British left decided that his crimes were of little consequence. I find myself wondering why she signed off on its conclusions, and why she of all people didn’t suggest that that FAC should talk to any actual Libyans, whose comments on the necessity for regime change may perhaps have provided an alternative perspective for the committee to ponder.

Above all, it is significant that while there are some references to Syria in the report, but a casual reader may miss the fact that since March 2011 there has been a savage civil war in that country which has led to over 250,000 dead, a massive refugee crisis, war crimes which include the use of chemical weapons by the ruling regime against its people, and the rise of IS. And all in the absence of any intervention by the UK or any other Western power.

I’m looking forward to Crispin Blunt and his committee reporting on that war, and the failures of British and Western policy that have prolonged it.

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