Colonel Gaddafi has made it clear: he will sacrifice his own people to stay in power. The constraints that other leaders have felt bound by as they faced peaceful protests are noticeably absent in Tripoli's decision-making. Unless the international community acts now, the notable gains made by the Libyan uprising could be reversed, with consequences in Libya but also elsewhere in the middle east. A revanchist and isolated Libya led by Gaddafi will use its petro-dollars to throttle the nascent democracies in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt and wage war against its enemies.
But what can be done? The Security Council has already failed to address the situation, merely condemning Libya's rulers for using force against peaceful demonstrators. It released a mere press statement on Tuesday that was unable to go further than condemnation - the diplomatic equivalent of a slap on the wrist - because of Russian and Chinese concerns that this was still an internal conflict and not yet grave enough to threaten the peace and security of the region - the UN Security Council’s official remit. The Human Rights Council has only just convened.
More shockingly, but nevertheless quite typically, the Security Council meeting only took place because the Libyan deputy representative at the UN, who had defected from the Libyan regime on Monday, requested it. Not one member of the Council itself made that request. The compromise on the text was only agreed when the Arab League issued their own sternly-worded statement, which gave Moscow and Beijing little choice.
There is still much to be done. First and foremost, direct military action should be ruled out, for now at least. Such a measure would aid the regime’s propagandistic efforts, could compound the humanitarian crisis on the ground and ultimately undermine the revolution in Libya and elsewhere. The endogenous nature of the ongoing revolutions in the middle east has given them their force; international military involvement could change this.
To hurt the regime and support the democratic uprising in Libya, the world can start by imposing sanctions that ensure the Libyan regime no longer benefits from its single greatest source of economic power – the energy sector: 95% of export revenue and 80% of government income come from oil revenues.
Additional sanctions could include asset freezes and travel bans on all Libyan officials and members of the security forces, which would send a signal to those officials who worry about their role in a post-Gaddafi Libya. Given the extensive holdings of the Gaddafi family, freezing assets will be a difficult and potentially lengthy process. However, it would send an important signal to the protesters, regime loyalists and other would-be Gaddafis in the region.
Thirdly, the West should push for an international investigation into the actions of Colonel Gaddafi and other members of his regime to determine their culpability in crimes against humanity. Ideally launched by the UN, the investigation could also be an ad hoc set-up involving Western, African and Arab jurists.
But this will still not be enough. Right now, Libyans desperately need a measure that limits Gaddafi’s capacity to kill his people in the coming days and weeks.
Whilst an invasion is on nobody's agenda, Western powers should consider helping to enforce a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace that removes the regime’s ability to make use of its airpower, the all-significant and decisive instrument it still has at its disposal.
Getting a legal mandate will be difficult with the Security Council in deadlock and the historical record of no-fly zones, for example over Iraq, remaining contentious. But given Gaddafi's indiscriminate targeting of civilians and the revulsion it has caused everywhere, it is not inconceivable that the Arab League or the African Union would shortly want to request the international community's help in enforcing a no-fly zone. That, in turn, could give way to an innovative Nato-enabled airpower coalition, ideally led not by Western powers but by Arab states. The model must not be Nato's Kosovo campaign or even the coalition assembled by George Bush Snr during the first Gulf War but rather the joint UN-AU mission in Sudan.
In preparing for this option, it is worth noting that the call for action over Libya is coming not from Western adventurists but from among the Arab population. It is an opportunity, therefore, to intervene against dictatorship in partnership and alongside the Arab people; an opportunity, that is, to bridge the divide that has marked the Western-Arab relationship over the last decade.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the West cannot help but influence events - non-intervention is an illusion. Indeed, it has already influenced events in a positive way. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been criticised for engaging with Gaddafi. Yet, were it not for Blair’s engagement with Gaddafi – which led to the regime’s dismantling of its WMD programme – we may have seen a mass atrocity of another kind taking place in the country. Unlike Saddam Hussein’s regime, which did possess the necessary weapons and stockpiles, the Libyan regime is unable to gas its own people and commit an atrocity similar to the 1988 Halabja genocide that killed at least 5,000 Kurds almost instantly.
It is high time for the West to exercise action and support the Libyan people.
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