Given the level of propaganda coming from all sides in Libya – and the many uses of it in past “humanitarian interventions”, whether by the US government in Kosovo or Iraq or the Russian government in Chechnya and Georgia, it is impossible to know for certain what is true and what isn’t in reports from Libya (the amount of propaganda has been so huge over such a long period that I’m making a separate post on it). However while we may not be getting to see and hear everything that’s going on there, we do know that seems to be partly because Gaddafi’s forces are preventing foreign journalists and aid agencies including the International Committee of the Red Cross, from entering any areas of cities they hold, which means they probably have something to hide (1) – (3). That makes reports from protesters, opposition groups and from Egyptian migrant workers that Gaddafi’s forces are targeting and killing civilians more credible; as well as reports from the ICRC that they have targeted paramedics and ambulance teams and that Arab journalists working for the BBC were tortured by Gaddafi’s forces (4) – (12). So instituting a no-fly zone and arming the rebels – as they have requested - may be justified. (Though even Amnesty International has sometimes been taken in by propaganda in the short term until it gets to investigate further)
Egyptian migrant workers who had escaped from Zawiya in western Libya told Human Rights Watch that Gaddafi’s forces were opening fire on anyone who left their house. The International Committee of the Red Cross also says Red Crescent ambulance paramedics and clearly marked ambulances were shot by Gaddafi’s forces as they tried to treat the wounded (13) – (14). These are war crimes like similar actions by US forces in the assault on Fallujah in April 2004, when snipers also targeted both civilians and ambulances (15) – (16).
Gaddafi’s forces preventing any foreign journalists or aid organisations entering areas they hold – and opening fire on them, taking them prisoner or torturing them or killing them if they do enter them - suggests that they want to hide the targeting of civilians, like Sharon’s government in Israel during it’s targeting of Palestinian civilians in offensives in the West Bank ; US forces in Fallujah ; and US missile strikes on the headquarters of Al Jazeera in both Kabul and Baghdad (17) – (21). (An alternative or additional motive could be fears that spies for the US government and others might pose as journalists – but remember that there is no free media in Libya. There are only state controlled newspapers and TV stations – with journalists who criticise Gaddafi jailed or killed.)
Gaddafi is also a dictator who we know, over decades, has jailed people without trial, “disappeared” them Pinochet style, tortured them and had them summarily executed without fair trial – as well as sending agents to murder exiled dissidents across Europe and banning independent trade unions and any media free of state control. We also know of at least two massacres committed by his forces before the recent reports. In June 1996 around 1,200 prisoners from the Abu Salim prison in Libya were killed. In July 1996 his forces killed around 50 people after there was a pitch invasion of fans shouting anti-Gaddafi slogans at a football match in Tripoli. These events have all taken place long enough ago that if they had been made up we would know by now, just as the false story about Kuwaiti babies thrown out of their incubators by Iraqi troops in 1990 was initially repeated by the Kuwaiti Red Crescent and Amnesty International in their reports, but corrected within months when Amnesty staff got to talk to doctors at the hospital involved (see my next post on this ) (22) – (27)
I distrust the motives of the US government and it’s allies, but remember that Gaddafi’s regime was happy to not only co-operate with them when it suited it, but to co-operate in “extra-ordinary rendition” with the CIA. Ibn Al Sheikh Al Libi, was said by his Libyan jailers to have “committed suicide” after Human Rights Watch volunteers talked to him. He told them that he was “Curveball”, the source used by the Bush administration on Saddam’s supposedly active WMD programmes – and that the CIA tortured him until he told them what they wanted to hear (28). So cold blooded murder to protect arms and oil deals is a part of the Gaddafi government. (Another Iraqi exile claiming to be Curveball then conveniently turned up and claimed he’d lied without having to be forced to).
Since there is already a rebellion against a dictatorship with a history of executing people without trial, disappearing them and massacring them, we should support the rebels.
We don’t know what kind of government they will institute or whether they might kill civilian supporters of Gaddafi if they win. The rebels include the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, some of whose members helped collect intelligence for Al Qa’ida for the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa – and who attempted, with MI6 support, to assassinate Gaddafi in 1996. Hundreds have been released from jail by Gaddafi’s regime after they renounced violence – including 110 after the first day of protests, so it seems unlikely he thought they were likely to join any armed insurgency against him (29) – (30). While many of those opposed to Gaddafi are Islamic fundamentalists, most will probably not be nearly as extreme as the LIFG though and no-one knows whether the Islamic fundamentalists are a majority or not. In February 2006 there were serious riots over rumours of the publication of a Mohammed cartoon in a Danish newspaper and 11 people were killed, suggesting Islamic fundamentalism is fairly influential in Libyan society (31).
We do know for a certainty though that Gaddafi has had civilians killed though and that given his past record that he is far more likely to have anyone who has opposed him jailed or killed than forgiven – and that includes protesters, not just those who took up arms against him. The Libyan people should also get whatever system of government they want, not one imposed on them by a dictatorship, whether that system ends up being a democracy most of us would approve of or not.
We also know the fate of those who have criticised or opposed Gaddafi in the past – usually long jail sentences or summary execution or their “disappearance”. Already in Zawiyah after Gaddafi’s forces’ victory an ITV journalist reported that ‘Troops are going house to house, according to one resident, rounding up dozens of suspects. We talked to one man who said: "People are being arrested for no reason, people who stayed in their homes for the whole seven days of the fighting. You cannot imagine what is happening here."’ (32)
Similarly, while some rebels say they think they will have no problem getting arms promised to them by the governments of Qatar and others – and the US is thought to have already requested that the Saudi government airlift arms to the rebels in Libya, this would be a very risky operation while Gaddafi’s air force still controls the skies. The Obama administration most likely wants to avoid being criticised later for arming rebels against Gaddafi if it later finds itself fighting or under attack from Islamic fundamentalist groups it has armed. However the risk of using the Saudis as a proxy is that they are likely to arm some of the most hardline Islamic fundamentalist groups, just as CIA co-operation with Pakistan’s military intelligence in the 80s to arm the Mujahedin saw arms go almost entirely to the most fundamentalist groups – and later to ISI support for the Taliban’s rise to power. If western governments armed some rebel groups themselves they could maybe ensure both that Gaddafi was overthrown and that the most extreme groups among the rebels didn't form the new government (not that their record here is very good - just look at it in Haiti, Nicaragua or El Salvador) (33) – (36).
Arming the rebels involves serious risks - including the possibility of a long and bloody civil war as in Congo or Somalia, the possibility that they might committ atrocities themselves if they win (though the fact that the rebels allow doctors in hospitals in areas they control to treat the wounded of both sides is hopeful here) ; and the fact that some factions like the LIFG have been allied to Al Qa'ida in the past and could try to sieze power (37). The alternative is almost certainly many thousands executed and thousands more disappeared by Gaddafi's military and secret police though.
There are many examples of past claims used to justify going to war which turned out to be propaganda, to make us uncertain of what is true and what isn’t in Libya ; and of hypocrisies by many of the governments calling for intervention and potential problems (covered in my next post), but if we wait until we have complete and definite information, by that time Gaddafi’s forces may well have wiped out the rebels and “disappeared” anyone who supported them or is suspected of supporting them. Most decisions must be taken without the full and certain facts. (That doesn’t mean we have to adopt what American journalist Ron Suskind called Cheney’s “one per cent doctrine” that we treat a 1% chance of something happening as a 100% chance – that would be treating a 99% chance that something is not happening as a 100% chance that it is (38))
CORRECTIONS AND UPDATES 14th March :
I've not found any report saying the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group are involved in the current fighting. There are claims from Gaddafi's government that various "Islamic Emirates" groups are involved like the Islamic Emirate of Barqa (39)
Al Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib has said it supports the rebels (though whether it's provided any support beyond words is not known) (40)
There are also some reports that Gaddafi has offered rebel fighters who surrender and hand over their weapons an amnesty (41)
(1) = Channel 4 News 08 Mar 2011 ‘Libya Unrest : Zawiyah’, http://www.channel4.com/news/libya-intense-fighting-as-gaddafis-forces-use-air-strikes (3rd video on page – journalists refused access to areas where fighting between rebels and Gaddafi’s forces continues)
(2) = Channel 4 News 09 Mar 2011 ‘Gaddafi ramps up military action against rebels’, http://www.channel4.com/news/last-rebel-held-city-in-west-set-to-fall-to-gaddafi-troops ; See from 4 minutes 31 seconds to 4 minutes 45 seconds on journalists being turned away from Zawiya by Gaddafi’s forces ; See from 5 minutes 0 seconds to 5 minutes 30 seconds on reports of Gaddafi’s snipers shooting anyone who moves
(3) = ICRC 10 Mar 2011 ‘Libya: urgent to apply the rules of war’,http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/news-release/2011/libya-news-2011-03-10.htm ;The ICRC president expressed disappointment over the organization still not having access even to those areas where the clashes have been heaviest. "It's unacceptable that, 24 days after the fighting started, a major part of the country remains effectively cut off from humanitarian aid," he said. "Our greatest challenge right now is to reach the areas hardest hit by the fighting in order to help treat the war-wounded and follow up on people who have gone missing, as we've been doing in the east of the country since we arrived on 27 February."
(4) = Human Rights Watch 26 Feb 2011 ‘Libya: Security Forces Fire on Protesters in Western City’,http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/02/26/libya-security-forces-fire-protesters-western-city (includes eye-witness accounts by Egyptian migrant workers)
(5) = Amnesty International 04 Mar 2011 ‘Libyan paramedics targeted by pro-Gaddafi forces’,http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/libyan-paramedics-targeted-pro-gaddafi-forces-2011-03-04
(6) = Channel 4 News 09 Mar 2011 ‘Gaddafi ramps up military action against rebels’, http://www.channel4.com/news/last-rebel-held-city-in-west-set-to-fall-to-gaddafi-troops ; See from 4 minutes 31 seconds to 4 minutes 45 seconds on journalists being turned away from Zawiya by Gaddafi’s forces ; See from 5 minutes 0 seconds to 5 minutes 30 seconds on reports of Gaddafi’s snipers shooting anyone who moves
(7) = Sydney Morning Herald 07 Mar 2011 ‘How the West can end Gaddafi's slaughter’, by Geoffrey Robertson,http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/how-the-west-can-end-gaddafis-slaughter-20110306-1bjgs.html
(8) = Amnesty International 20 Feb 2011 ‘Libyan leader must end spiralling killings’,http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/libyan-leader-must-end-spiralling-killings-2011-02-20
(9) = Al Jazeera 22 Feb 2011 ‘Fresh violence rages in Libya’, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/02/201122261251456133.html
(10) = Reuters 22 Feb 2011 ‘Gaddafi defiant in face of mounting revolt’,http://www.polity.org.za/article/gaddafi-defiant-in-face-of-mounting-revolt-2011-02-22
(11) = AP 17 Feb 2011 ‘20 reported killed in Libya 'day of rage'’, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41638452/ns/world_news-mideast/n_africa/
(12) = Guardian.co.uk 08 Mar 2011 ‘Assault on Zawiyah - live updates’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/08/arab-and-middle-east-protests-libya#block-1 ; Sky News, whose correspondent Alex Crawford and her crew were trapped in Zawiyah over the weekend, said it witnessed Gaddafi forces firing on unarmed civilians and ambulances. These accounts were corroborated from Tripoli by the Guardian's Peter Beaumont, who reports: "Residents described a hail of bullets with women and children being killed and families trapped within their homes by the ferocity of the fighting."
(13) = Human Rights Watch 26 Feb 2011 ‘Libya: Security Forces Fire on Protesters in Western City’,http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/02/26/libya-security-forces-fire-protesters-western-city (includes eye-witness accounts by Egyptian migrant workers)
(14) = Amnesty International 04 Mar 2011 ‘Libyan paramedics targeted by pro-Gaddafi forces’,http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/libyan-paramedics-targeted-pro-gaddafi-forces-2011-03-04
(15) = Guardian 17 Apr 2004 ‘'Getting aid past US snipers is impossible'’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/apr/17/iraq
(16) = BBC News 23 Apr 2004 ‘Picture emerges of Falluja siege’,http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3653223.stm
(17) = guardian.co.uk 09 Mar 2011 ‘BBC staff 'arrested and tortured in Libya by Gaddafi forces'’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/09/bbc-staff-arrest-torture-libya
(18) = guardian.co.uk 10 Mar 2011 ‘Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in custody, Libya officials confirm’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/10/guardian-journalist-ahad-custody-libya
(19) = Al Jazeera 12 Mar 2011 ‘Al Jazeera staffer killed in Libya’,http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/03/2011312192359523376.html
(20) = Amnesty International 2002 ‘Israel and the Occupied Territories - Shielded from scrutiny: IDF violations in Jenin and Nablus’, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE15/143/2002/en/dom-MDE151432002en.html ; (for more on this see this post )
(21) = Guardian Media 23 Nov 2005 2p.m update ‘Bush claim revives al-Jazeera bombing fears’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2005/nov/23/pressandpublishing.iraq , ‘The Baghdad bombing of 2003 was the second attack by American forces on the offices of al-Jazeera. In 2001 the station's Kabul office was hit by two "smart" bombs in an attack that almost wrecked the nearby BBC bureau. Al-Jazeera said it had given the location of its offices in both Kabul and Baghdad to the authorities in Washington, but it had still been attacked.’
(22) = Geoff Simons (2003) ‘Libya and the West’ Center for Libyan Studies, Oxford, UK, 2003, Chapter 6 , especially pages 103 -115 (also cites summary executions of Libyans stopped at road blocks etc)
(23) = Ronald Bruce St. John (2008 ) ‘Libya – From Colony to Independence’ , Oneworld books, Oxford, UK, 2008, pages 165-171, 256-257 of paperback edition; on football match shootings see page 223
(24) = Geoff Simons (1996) ‘Libya – The Struggle for Survival’ 2nd edition, paperback edition, MacMillan, London, 1996
(25) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2011 – Libya,http://www.hrw.org/en/world-report-2011/libya ; There are still dozens of unresolved disappearance cases in Libya, including those of Libyan opposition members Jaballa Hamed Matar and Izzat al-Megaryef, whom Egyptian security arrested in 1990 in Cairo. Their families later learned that Egypt had handed them over to Libyan security officials, who detained them in Abu Salim prison. Prominent Lebanese Shia cleric Imam Musa al-Sadr disappeared in Libya 32 years ago; his fate remains unknown.
(26) = Amnesty International 2010 World Report – Libya,http://report2010.amnesty.org/sites/default/files/AIR2010_AZ_EN.pdf#page=156; Hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances and other human rights violations committed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s remain unresolved, and the Internal Security Agency, implicated in those violations, continued to operate with impunity.
(27) = Human Rights Watch 28 Jun 2006 ‘Libya: June 1996 Killings at Abu Salim Prison’,http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2006/06/28/libya-june-1996-killings-abu-salim-prison
(28) = HRW 11 May 2009 ‘Libya/US: Investigate Death of Former CIA Prisoner’, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/05/11/libyaus-investigate-death-former-cia-prisoner
(29) = Mark Curtis (2010) ‘Secret Affairs – Britain’s collusion with Radical Islam’,Serpent’s tail books, London, 2010, chapter 13, pages 225-231 of paperback edition
(30) = Al Jazeera 16 Feb 2011 ‘Libyan police stations torched’, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/02/20112167051422444.html ; ‘Meanwhile, a local human rights activist told Reuters news agency that the authorities have decided to release 110 prisoners jailed for membership of banned organisation, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.The prisoners to be freed on Wednesday, are the last members of the group still being held and will be set free from Tripoli's Abu Salim jail, Mohamed Ternish, chairman of the Libya Human Rights Association said.Hundreds of alleged members of the group have been freed from jail after it renounced violence last year.’
(31) = Ronald Bruce St. John (2008 ) ‘Libya – From Colony to Independence’ , Oneworld books, Oxford, UK, 2008, page 257 of paperback edition
(32) = Guardian.co.uk 10 Mar 2011 ‘Zawiya town centre devastated and almost deserted’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/10/zawiya-town-itv-regime-battle ; They are sweeping through Zawiya, rounding up young men they suspect might have been involved in the rebellion…Troops are going house to house, according to one resident, rounding up dozens of suspects. We talked to one man who said: "People are being arrested for no reason, people who stayed in their homes for the whole seven days of the fighting. You cannot imagine what is happening here."… We left the square to go to the hospital where doctors had told me on Sunday they believed Gaddafi was guilty of war crimes, including killing doctors. I hoped to talk to them. At the gate where we had been stopped by soldiers I saw one of the doctors. He made a sign with his hand warning me not to acknowledge him. He was clearly scared. He knows he treated rebels. He also treated government soldiers.
(33) = guardian.co.uk 09 Mar 2011 ‘Libya's war intensifies but Nato shows no sign of intervening’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/09/libya-gaddafi-ras-lanuf-zawiya
(34) = The Independent 07 Mar 2011 ‘America's secret plan to arm Libya's rebels’,http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/americas-secret-plan-to-arm-libyas-rebels-2234227.html
(35) = Coll, Steve (2004) , 'Ghost Wars : The secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden' , Penguin , London, 2004, Prologue, page 12 of paperback edition
(36) = Ahmed Rashid (2001) ‘Taliban’, Tauris books, London ,2001 – especially p132 of paperback edition
(37) = Sky News 08 Mar 2011 ‘Special Report: Rebel-Held Town Under Siege’,
http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/World-News/Libya-Sky-News-Witnesses-Zawiyah-Rebels-Battle-Gaddafi-Soldiers-In-Bloody-Fight-For-Control-Of-City/Article/201103215948211?lpos=World_News_Top_Stories_Header_1&lid=ARTICLE_15948211_Libya%3A_Sky_News_Witnesses_Zawiyah_Rebels_Battle_Gaddafi_Soldiers_In_Bloody_Fight_For_Control_Of_City (see videos)
(38) = Ron Suskind (2006) ‘The One Percent doctrine’, Simon & Schuster, London, 2007
(39) = AFP/ Sydney Morning Herald 21 Feb 2011 ‘Libyan Islamists seize arms, take hostages’,http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-world/libyan-islamists-seize-arms-take-hostages-20110221-1b19c.html
(40) = CNN 24 Feb 2011 ‘Al Qaeda's North African wing says it backs Libya uprising’,http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-24/world/libya.qaeda.statement_1_libyan-islamic-fighting-group-islamic-maghreb-al-qaeda?_s=PM:WORLD
(41) = guardian.co.uk 02 Mar 2011 ‘Muammar Gaddafi offers rebels an amnesty’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/02/muammar-gaddafi-offers-rebels-amnesty