Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Libya and the World in 2011: A Higher Calling

On February 21, 2011, Libyan military aircraft fired live ammunition at crowds of anti-government protesters in Tripoli. "What we are witnessing today is unimaginable," said Adel Mohamed Saleh, an activist in the capital. "Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead." Arabiya television put the number killed on that day alone at 160. Gadhafi's son had vowed on television the day before that his father and security forces would fight "until the last bullet." I suspect that few people were surprised to find that Gadhafi would mount a sustained vituperative effort against the pro-democracy movement that was sweeping through the Middle East. "These really seem to be last, desperate acts. If you're bombing your own capital, it's really hard to see how you can survive, " said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Control Risks' Middle East analyst. "But I think Gaddafi is going to put up a fight ... in Libya more than any other country in the region, there is the prospect of serious violence and outright conflict," he said. As the world received reports of the massacre, a latent question not being asked was whether the world (or even a coalition therein in case of a holdout like China) has the right or an obligation to intervene militarily to stop the offending regime against its own defenseless people. I contend that there is such a right and moral obligation--meaning that national sovereignty does not extend to crimes against humanity. Sadly, at the time of the Libyan protests and Gaddafi's retaliation, the world's government offiicals were still largely impotent and disorganized.

Even if not sufficiently for his regime to collapse, Gadhafi's obstinancy was being undercut right out from beneath him. As the the military was escalating its attack on unarmed citizens inside Libya, something else--something rather astonishing--was happening. Rather than putting up a united front to the world against the opposition, the government showed itself to consist of men whose participation in Gadhafi's government was not unconditional. Could it be that the Nuremburg verdicts against the Nazis in 1948--the ruling that blind obedience is not excuse for even government offiicals and employees being held accountable--was finally being heard?  That is to say, might it be that in addition to conscience, the emerging judicial enforcement at the International Criminal Court was having a slight (but significant) impact even as crimes against humanity were being committed?Libya's former ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, who a day earlier resigned from his post to side with protesters, issued a statement demanding Gadhafi "be put on trial along with his aides, security and military commanders over the mass killings in Libya." Were the former ambassador's warning having a real impact in real-time on government offiicals, this would evince real progress for the human race. Specifically, the realization by oificials while they are in power that they might be held accountable for their role in harming their own people could, with the help of conscience, mitigate how far a regime can go in "punishing" its people for their natural proclivity to protest injustice.  There is some evidence that government officials who might have held tough a decade earlier were having second thoughts and, crucially, acting on them.

For example, as the Libyan military was trouncing on marching mourners, Justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil reportedly resigned from his post to protest the "excessive use of force against unarmed protesters." Also, at least two Libyan air force pilots defected to Malta rather than shoot on defenseless citizens. Lastly, Libyan diplomats abroad explicitly backed off supporting the country's dictator. For example, a Libyan diplomat in China, Hussein el-Sadek el-Mesrati, told Al-Jazeera, "I resigned from representing the government of Mussolini and Hitler." Even more astonishing, Libya's ambassadors at the United Nations called for Gadhafi to step down as the country's ruler. Deputy Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi said that if Gadhafi does not relinquish power, "the Libyan people will get rid of him." The staff of Libya's mission to the United Nations declared allegiance to the people of Libya, instead of to Gadhafi, a spokesman said on the day on which Libyan jet fighters turned on the citizens they were to protect. Traditionally, it has been thought that governments are the members of international bodies such as the UN.  That it might actually be the people of a country who are represented in a confederation would be revolutionary (this is typically thought to be in part the case in a federal government, rather than in an alliance or strictly international organization). Ambassadors representing a regime conditionally goes along with al-Houni's statement even on the day when bullets sprayed on the Libyan people from the air, "Gadhafi's regime is now in the trash of history because he betrayed his nation and his people." In other words, Gadhafi's regime had already lost its legitimacy, and thus its right to represent the people abroad (and at home). 

To be sure, autocratic regimes are not necessarily populated by people of concience or even foresight (e.g., concerning possible prosecution at the ICC or even domestically). When Gandhi was asked how non-violent non-cooperation could ever hope to work against an invading and occupying Nazi force, he acknowledged that many would be harmed for the sake of truth, but ultimately the dictators are already destined to the trash-bin of history. Progress comes by painfully slow steps in this world of flawed humanity.  One novelist on the American Civil War observed, if we are angels, then surely we are killer angels. Was it some cruel joke? one might ask God.  Why?  Yet if the pro-democracy movement in the Middle East could teach us--meaning all of us--anything, it might be that we, acting together, can push the boulder a bit further up the hill. We need no longer accept the existence of regimes that betray their people, and in February of 2011 the world realized its efficacy in making this so. It is as if in one voice we finally exclaimed, "No, we will not go softly into the night. We will stand up and they will back down!"

As the people in the Middle East were pushing up against the dead weight of history, the rest of us were with them--indeed, being transfixed and humbled by them as they marched against dazed tyrants who had not yet realized that their day had already passed quietly into the night to be replaced by the first light of another dawn. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a progression in the eternal recurrence of night and day.


"Gadhafi: 'I'm in Tripoli, not Venezuela," February 22, 2011. NBCNews.com.