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Ruthless Theatre


ON October 20, news reports filtered out of Sirte, Libya, that Muammar Qaddafi had been killed. Very soon, cell-phone images and then videos were uploaded on to YouTube and broadcast on Arabic language news channels, followed quickly thereafter by news agencies elsewhere. The gruesome images came without context. There was jubilation from North Atlantic and Gulf Arab-controlled media (News Corporation's The Sun carried a grisly death shot of Qaddafi under the headline, “That's For Lockerbie”). The piece de resistance came in Kabul, Afghanistan, when United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down for a news interview. In between segments, with the camera still rolling, Hillary Clinton paraphrased a well-known Julius Caesar quotation (veni, vidi, vici), “We came, we saw, he died.” It was ruthless theatre.

The cell-phone video stopped the celebration. It showed Qaddafi bloodied but alive. He is being pushed around, thrown on to the bonnet of a car to be paraded from Sirte to Misrata. Qaddafi pleads, “Don't you know that what you are doing is wrong?” The fighters ignore him. The tape ends. Photographs of a dead Qaddafi fill in the storyline. It is apparent that he was shot in the head. What is now being confirmed is that he was also sodomised.

In more sober quarters, the images provoked revulsion. It is because of this that the United Nations Human Rights Office has called for an investigation. Not long after, such a call was echoed in the capitals of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member-states as well as in the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC). It had become impossible to ignore the visual evidence suggesting violations of the U.N. Human Rights Charter and the Geneva Conventions. Qaddafi's family, now mainly in Algeria, also proposed to sue NATO and the new Libyan government in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

NATO went into this war with the putative aim of upholding the Geneva Conventions (to prevent the massacre of civilians by a state). The war ended with the violation of those very conventions. It has put a blot on the new Libya.

The sudden rush to investigate the manner of the killing comes at a price. It will focus attention on the fighters from Misrata and Benghazi who arrived at the scene of the bombed convoy, out of which Qaddafi had fled to hide in a culvert. It will take issue with 22-year-old Sanad al-Sadek al-Ureibi of Benghazi, who claims to have shot Qaddafi because the Misratan fighters wanted to take him away to their city. These young rebels, without any military discipline and training in the international norms of warfare, will bear the brunt of the blame, if any.

Outside the frame of the investigations will be the missile fired from either a NATO aircraft or a drone that stopped the convoy as it left Sirte, outside the field of battle. Over the course of the tenure of the past (Phillip Alston) and present (Christof Heyns) U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, several reports have been released that caution about the use of drones or other aerial forms of attack to conduct targeted assassinations. After the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, for instance, Christof Heyns and Martin Scheinin (U.N. Special Rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism) noted that deadly force might only be used in exceptional cases. “However, the norm should be that terrorists be dealt with as criminals, through legal processes of arrest, trial and judicially decided punishment.” Their caution applies to all cases of the use of drones or aerial devices to fire at people (part of the reason is also that such attacks have such a poor hit rate, with one militant killed for every 50 civilians as far as evidence from Pakistan shows).

Ethnic cleansing

In the cell-phone images of Qaddafi's capture, there is an image of a dark-skinned man, bound to a pole. Little has been made of this image, and of the systematic ethnic cleansing that began at the start of the war and has intensified since then. Early in the war, the rebels caviled about the use of “African mercenaries” by Qaddafi, as if to say that since he had no support in the country he had to resort to buying his army. Media reports spoke of the arrests and killing of dark-skinned Libyans and those who had come either to fight or to seek work from other parts of Africa. None of the NATO countries took a position on these reports, nor did the U.N. Finally, in early September, Human Rights Watch released an advisory note asking the new Libyan authorities to “stop arbitrary attacks on black Africans”. Sarah Whitson, Middle East [West Asia] and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, noted, “It's a dangerous time to be dark-skinned in Tripoli. The National Transitional Council should stop arresting African migrants and black Libyans unless it has concrete evidence of criminal activity. It should also take immediate steps to protect them from violence and abuse.” In late August, rebel fighters emptied out the town of Tawarga, home to mainly dark-skinned Libyans.

Diana Eltahawy of Amnesty International told The Telegraph (London): “We have met Tawargas in detention, taken from their homes simply for being Tawargas. They have told us that they have been forced to kneel and beaten with sticks.”

In August, African Union (A.U.) chair Jean Ping noted that the “NTC seems to confuse black people with mercenaries. If they do that it means that one-third of the population of Libya who are black are also mercenaries. They are killing people, normal workers, mistreating them.” In mid-October, the A.U.'s Peace and Security Council called upon the NTC to protect all foreign workers, “including African migrant workers”. None of the NATO states joined the A.U. on this sensible and basic request.

Human Rights Watch began to accumulate shards of evidence from Sirte, where it seems the rebels had executed untold numbers of residents and Qaddafi supporters: 53 bound and shot bodies in the Mahari Hotel and bodies in the water reservoir in District 2 in Sirte. There is also sporadic evidence of other such retributory massacres in Tripoli, in the Nafusa Mountains and in Misrata. Little has been made of these events.

In the U.S., there is virtual silence on all this. International law has ceased to be a standard for judgment, with the media now given over to a view of the world that seems inherited from former Vice-President Dick Cheney (that international law is an encumbrance on the War on Terror). Hillary Clinton's off-colour statement reveals the sentiments that form the basis for U.S. foreign policy. Not a few days after her comments in Kabul, the Secretary of State met Bahrain's Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, who came to Washington with a shopping list that included weaponry (including “dual-use” weapons, to use against a foreign army and against one's own population, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia demonstrated in March 2011).

Targeted assassination has become a standard part of the U.S. arsenal (even against its own citizens, as happened in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen in late September by a U.S. drone-fired missile). Disregard for human rights violations of its allies is also part of the grammar, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's attacks on civilians are not treated with any seriousness. Indeed, the architect of the new Gulf Arab aggressiveness, Nayef bin Abdulaziz, is the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; human rights will have no place on the peninsula (least of all in Yemen). When the previous Crown Prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, died a few days after Qaddafi was killed, Hillary Clinton offered her “deepest condolences” to the Saudi monarchy and said, “He will be missed.” No such grace for Qaddafi, who had been a close ally of the U.S. in its War on Terror. The Libyan war has rehabilitated the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. It had been cast out of favour after the chaos in Iraq. In April, France and the U.N. used armed action to remove Laurent Gbagbo from power in the Ivory Coast. A senior U.N. official said, “The action in the Ivory Coast was given a psychological lift by the fact that it is happening against the backdrop of Libya, and supports Mr [Barack] Obama's narrative that intervention is justified in some cases.”

With the fall of Tripoli and the execution of Qaddafi at a small cost to the NATO states themselves, new armed adventures have commenced across Africa: more drone attacks in Somalia, U.S. special forces in Uganda, and a green light to the Kenyan armed forces to enter Somalia. The A.U. remains prone. It is likely that given a reasonable interval, the U.S. will ask the new Libyan authorities for access to land to build a base and bring the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to the continent (it is currently based in Stuttgart, Germany, since no African country has welcomed it). These developments are buoyed on the back of the Libyan model of intervention – minimal, but deadly NATO and U.S. armed attacks, with proxy forces given licence to act as they wish. A lack of vigilance of the actual war fought in Libya, with its routine violations of international law, will only further embolden such adventures. For that reason, the investigations by the U.N. and other bodies are crucial, as is the media's continued interest in reporting on those investigations.

Qaddafi is now buried in an undisclosed location. His will asks that he be buried with his ancestors in a graveyard in Sirte. That has been disregarded. Qaddafi's will also asks, “The Libyan people should not relinquish the sacrifices of the free and best people. I call on my supporters to continue the resistance, and fight any foreign aggressor against Libya, today, tomorrow and always.” The resistance may be dead. But the spirit of independence that Qaddafi calls upon is being sorely tested. 

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