Although the information trickling out of Libya is sketchy, Qaddafy’s reign is clearly approaching its end at great cost to the valiant citizens who have defied his assassins. It is inspiring and terrifying to see what people are capable of doing when they have had enough and really do choose ‘Liberty or Death’ as the facile slogans we sport on our license plates say. From all indications the final collapse is coming within days, and the celebrations will rival those of Cairo but tempered by the thousands of funerals that will be occurring simultaneously.
It is curious how the language of human rights has resurfaced throughout the events in the Middle East as a frame for the positions of western governments. Hillary C, Obama himself, the European heads of state all frequent invoke the universality of certain rights, such as peaceable assembly and freedom of speech, to outline their demands on challenged governments and tyrannical regimes. Sometimes the rhetoric they deploy is virtually indistinguishable from the positions taken by the major human rights organizations.
For example, a Human Rights Watch spokesman told Jim Lehrer on The News Hour a few nights ago that the U.S. government should issue statements to the effect that middle-level army officers and other Libyan officials will be held accountable individually for further crimes committed by the regime against its citizens even if they were receiving orders to carry out such atrocities. This is a direct reference to the Nuremberg principles that crimes against humanity are illegitimate and individuals have a responsibility not to obey orders to commit them.
That’s a tough one in the Libyan case where such refusals have been punished by death. But for outsiders it is sometimes the only tool left short of direct intervention, which carries much more serious risks. Even the talk of imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya is a much graver matter than it appears at first glance since such military action opens the door to escalation if it doesn’t work. We already learned a lesson in Iraq about how foolish recourse to direct conquest can be.
Instead, Friday’s Guardian said that British officials were communicating directly to contacts in the Libyan security forces and warning them not to take part in further atrocities. Whether that pressure is persuading them, or they wanted to break with Qaddafy anyway is not clear, but many former backers of the regime are jumping ship, from top diplomats down to army recruits.
Human rights-based prosecutions could easily follow the Libyan endgame, which has disgusted decent people everywhere. These trials, were they to occur, would have much more credibility, however, if the people now threatening them were more consistent defenders of human rights in their own affairs in places like Guantánamo and Bagram Air Force Base. How ironic it would be if a future detainee should defend himself in The Hague by saying, Yes, I tortured my citizens—on your orders.