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Libya: one year on

The message to the new Libya must be loud and clear: we will support you as long as you respect basic human rights of all those living in Libya.

James Debono
20 February 2012, 12:00am
It would be criminal if Malta and Italy turn their back in the hope that the new Libya will continue policing its borders to prevent migrants from coming here.
Amnesty International's latest report on human rights violations committed by 'revolutionary militias' should be a wake-up call on western nations not to repeat the same mistakes committed when Muammar Gaddafi was still in power, and western nations turned a blind eye as long as they had a finger in the pie.

A year ago I was one of those who backed a military intervention to stop Gaddafi from translating his threat to kill the "rats and cockroaches" to real acts of genocide.

Most probably western nations like Italy and France only intervened when they could no longer afford to have a finger in the pie without being associated with a mad dog who was barking madly at his own people.

Gaddafi barked so madly that even Russia and China abstained in the Security Council resolution authorising the use of force.

Still, I do not regret that and am proud that Malta had a role in the defeat of a brutal regime.

Had nobody acted today we would be speaking about the bloodbath of Benghazi. We would have had another Srebrenica. We would have had the same situation we now have in Homs in Syria, or probably worse. 

In Libya, it was logistically possible to stop troops advancing across the desert and proceed to support the encirclement of Tripoli by advancing bands of rebels. All this was possible because the Colonel was hated at home (except in strongholds like Sirte) and courageous people were willing to abandon their normal jobs and take up arms against the regime.

That said, all bloody revolutions in history were tainted by horrific acts of terror. The lines between defending the revolution and inflicting revenge have always been blurred. In some instances as Iran, revolutionary terror eventually became permanent.

The only exception to the rule was Eastern Europe (with the tragic exception of former Yugoslvia) in 1989.  But unlike the Arab world, not only did regimes fell in Eastern Europe fall like a pack of cards, but the whole region was offered the prospect of joining the European Union.

Unfortunately no such project lies on the table at a moment when Europe itself is facing an economic threat to its very survival. The iron law of revolutions states that the more wicked and totalitarian a regime is, the greater the violence.

The fact that Libya lacks any political infrastructure makes matters worse. For while Tunisia had a very corrupt regime it still had political parties, trade unions and a civil society which could channel popular anger towards something more constructive.

In Libya the state was reduced to the power of Gaddafi and his family obscured by a bizarre system of dysfunctional popular committees. Since Gaddafi accepted responsibility for what was probably one of the few crimes he did not commit (Lockerbie), the west turned a blind eye to all this.

What is sure is that after assisting the fall of Gaddafi, we cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes of the past.

Those expecting Libya to evolve overnight from a farcical but brutal dictatorship of the Gaddafi dynasty to a some sort of Norway of the south are naïve. So are those who expect Libyans to adopt a secular constitution with no reference to Islam. 

Libya's evolution towards a degree of normality will be full of pitfalls and setbacks and will be probably anchored in some form of political Islam, hopefully of the Turkish and Tunisian brands.

The fact that 20% of seats in Libya's first democratically elected parliament will be allocated to women is a positive indication. But those who are willing to turn a blind eye at human rights abuses to start conducting business with the new regime are not any different from those who honoured Gaddafi with medals in the past.

After a long procrastination Malta had made the right choices during the revolution against Gaddafi. But following the revolution I have not heard the Maltese government utter a single world of concern with regards to human rights abuses in Libya.

The risk is that the Maltese government is more interested in scoring deals with the new Libya, than in ensuring that the new Libya is really new.

The worse aspect of the human rights record of the new Libya are not the acts of revenge against Gaddafi's henchmen, which although condemnable are unfortunately unavoidable after 40 years of brutality; but the violence perpetrated against African migrants and dark skinned Libyans like those of Tawarga.

The documented cases of torture against these people is simply unacceptable.

This resentment could be rooted in Gaddafi's bizarre use of African motifs in his mythology while he unscrupulously used African migrants as pawns in his foreign policy blackmail.

Unfortunately freedom itself can unleash popular prejudice on the weakest members of Libyan society, whose role as mercenaries used by the regime to pluck the revolution has been wildly exaggerated. Unfortunately, there has been little pressure from Malta and other western nations on Libya to finally sign the Geneva Convention, and to free African migrants held by the militias under flimsy accusations of being mercenaries.

It would be criminal if Malta and Italy turn their back in the hope that the new Libya will continue policing its borders to prevent migrants from coming here. The danger is that the persecution of blacks in Libya may well push more migrants to escape.

The message to the new Libya must be loud and clear: we will support you as long as you respect basic human rights of all those living in Libya.

While Libyans are free to determine their destiny, Europe must make it clear that cooperation must depend on respect for universal human rights.

We owe that to the Libyans who died in the revolution.

James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...