Sunday, 6 March 2011

Time to do something in Libya

Over the last few weeks, Libya has descended into a state of civil war. Supporters of Colonel Gaddafi are clashing with rebels in a number of different cities around the country. Roughly, the rebels hold the east of the country, whereas Gaddafi and his followers control the west. The revolt was sparked by similar revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia (between which Libya is sandwiched). Similar uprising have also occurred elsewhere in the Arab world following the coup in Tunisia in January. However, while the Egyptian and Tunisian situations resolved themselves relatively peacefully, the situation in Libya as escalated into a very serious and real conflict.

This escalation was due, largely, to the abject refusal of Colonel Gaddafi to step down, despite huge pressure from protestors. Indeed, a few weeks ago, Gaddafi called on his own supporters to fight back against the rebels, essentially sparking the current civil war. The rebellion began in the country’s second city, Benghazi, and has spread across much of the east of the country. Gaddafi’s forces still hold Tripoli, the capital. At the moment, the main conflict is over the oil-centres of Begra and Jazour.

While in Egypt and Tunisia, the army stepped in to protect protesters and help complete the revolution without too much bloodshed, the Libyan army is too weak and disjointed to provide coherent support to either side. Some army officers have defected to the rebels and are helping to train and arm them. It seems likely that much of the army will refuse to carry out Gaddafi’s orders if they involve turning on Libyan citizens, indeed some of the already have, however Gaddafi will be able to rely on a powerful paramilitary force, personally loyal to him and his family. Generally Gaddafi’s forces are better armed, but the rebellion is growing in strength.

The current situation, then, is frightening. We have the prospect of thousands dying in a lengthy and drawn out civil war. Gaddafi has already shown that he has no qualms over killing his own people and no intention of stepping down either. Even when the fighting does stop and the dust clears over Tripoli, the country, whoever is in charge, will be faced with a massive economic and political fallout that will cripple it for a generation.

And yet, The West has done nothing. There has been a lot of talk, condemning Gaddafi’s actions and voicing concern for those stuck in the middle of the conflict, but no real action. The situation in Libya is really very simple. Gaddafi is a despot, a tyrant, he has a history of human rights abuses (Lockerby bombings anyone?) and has led his country without election since the 1960s. His regime consistently abuses freedom of speech and keeps political control firmly in the hands of those in Tripoli. With its secret police and ‘people’s committees’, Libya resembles something like an ex-soviet state. Libyans have looked at the rebellions of the Egyptians and Tunisians, and decided that they deserve better than tyranny and oppression. They have risen up in the name of freedom and democracy.

And yet, The West has done nothing. While the USA and Western Europe claim to be champions of democracy, supporters of freedom of speech, they do little but talk, while Libyans fight and die for those very ideals. We sit by and tut disapprovingly of the actions of Gaddafi, yet do nothing to stop the atrocities committed in his name. The West has tremendous economic, political and military clout, but it repeatedly refuses to use it to support the ideals for which it stands and upon which it is built.

I’m not saying we should send in the troops. Iraq and Afghanistan proves that rarely ends well. However there is a lot more that could be done. Economic sanctions; denying Gaddafi access to the resources he needs to conduct his war, support to the rebels; providing resources to help them overthrow Gaddafi, arrests warrant on Gaddafi and his sons for human rights violations. There is plenty of real substance that can actually be done to help the cause of democracy.

The international community is still recoiling from the public backlash to the last major international intervention: Iraq. The problem is that, the reason for the backlash was not that Iraq was handled badly (although it was), or that the wrong action was taken (although that was also the case), but that intervening in Iraq was quite clearly unwarranted, unnecessary, self-serving and immoral. The backlash came, not from the actions, but the intentions behind the actions. There was no good reason why the invasion of Iraq went ahead. Had there been a good reason – as there was in Afghanistan – the reaction would have been disappointment that the situation was not handled better – again, as was the case with Afghanistan – rather than outrage at the needless loss of life on both sides.

The Iraqi backlash has led to crippling indecision and conservatism on the part of the international community. As is so often the case, the pendulum has gone too far – from charging in, guns blazing, to awkward feet shuffling and embarrassed looks to someone else to do something. The appropriate response is somewhere in-between these extremes. Currently the international community is floundering and wallowing in self-doubt, while Libyans fight for their freedom, wondering what Gaddafi has to do to cause the international community to take notice. This inaction is as bad as the wrong type of action.

There is also a slightly more sinister factor a play here. Libya is a rather important international exporter of oil. The invasion of Iraq disrupted oil production from The Gulf for years, similar action in Libya could very well cause a similar disruption. With the world economy teetering uncertainly, and with oil prices relatively high, any disruption to the world oil economy could be disastrous. But try telling that to the Libyans.

The situation in Libya is a golden opportunity for world leaders to demonstrate to their people that they are not unprincipled, self-serving cowards who will not lift a finger unless it directly benefits them. It is a chance to demonstrate that principles such as liberty, self-determination and freedom of speech are not simply buzz-words; they are ideals that deserve protecting, that require nurturing, and that should be placed in a pedestal for all to aspire to.

Institutions such as the UN and the International Court of Human Rights were established in the aftermath of the Second World War to prevent such a calamitous world catastrophe from happening again, and to begin building towards a world where nations are not divided, but united, where ideals do not clash, but coexist, where people everywhere can expect the same rights and the same opportunities.

Over 60 years on from the establishment of these institutions, the world still faces an incredibly tough challenge in realising these ideals. The effects of communism are still being felt in the Far East and in eastern Europe and extreme Islamism seem to be the next threat looming rather close on the horizon. There is still a long way to go, but if we are ever to start moving towards a solution in any meaningful way, a statement needs to be made.

The current rebellions signal the beginning of the end of the string of dictators that arose out of the dismantlement of The Empires, most notably the British Empire. Africa, in particular, was ravaged by this fallout. The dust is still clearing over large parts of Central Africa, but it would seem that the dictators who emerged from that dust are starting to lose their power. Democracy is beginning to take root and the people of these nations are beginning to demand the freedom they have lacked for so long.

It is time the international community began to recognise these demands and stand by the people. It’s been desirable, but not needed up until now, but with the flames of Civil War eating away at Libya, it is most certainly needed. Libya is a test of international nerve, and so far, we’re failing. It’s time that actions took over from words and something concrete was done to stop Gaddafi and support the Libyan people in their fight for freedom. 

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