The other side of history

Even without the benefit of hindsight, it was naïve to think – as many at the time suggested – that Libya’s troubles would end with the demise of Gaddafi.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Three years ago, the Libyan uprising offered the Gonzi administration an opportunity to demonstrate its propensity for engaging in world politics. It is fair to say that the government of the day rose to the occasion, and orchestrated a successful evacuation operation that involved co-operation and co-ordination with a number of other countries.

Lawrence Gonzi earned widespread plaudits for his handling of the situation, and later published personal memoirs of his involvement in the overthrow of Gaddafi. But he didn’t stop there. At the height of the crisis he also seized the opportunity to use the developments in Libya as ammunition in the purely local political arena:  constantly challenging the Labour opposition to take up a position against the Gaddafi regime, and arguing that his party was ‘always on the right side of history’ where Libya (and other matters) were concerned.

This was of course debatable: barely a few months earlier, Gonzi had become the last European leader to pay homage to Gaddafi in Libya. But the reality of the situation, as is now evident to one and all, is that there is no such thing as a ‘right side of history’ in this issue.

Gaddafi may have been a ruthless dictator - and his downfall in itself was certainly no great loss to the world political stage - but even at the time, there was abundant reason to be wary of the possible alternative to ruthless dictators in the troubled North African state. The same consideration applies also to similar scenarios in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, it was naïve to think – as many at the time suggested – that Libya’s troubles would end with the demise of Gaddafi.

Yet Gonzi wasn’t the only European leader to hitch a ride on the anti-Gaddafi uprising for purely local political reasons. Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nikolas Sarkozy likewise seized the moment to elevate their own ailing political fortunes on the back of active involvement in the Libyan uprising.

Other countries also participated in the wholesale arming of rebels – who now refuse to relinquish these weapons, and are using them in an ongoing civil war – and the United Nations provided support in the form of a no-fly zone.

Curiously, barely three years later all these protagonists are conspicuously silent when faced with the consequences of their own actions. It is as though the Western world genuinely believed that removing Libya’s dictator would be the key to solving that country’s internal problems. Now that the opposite has come to pass, there is a marked reluctance to apply the same reasoning to the current situation as had been applied to the 2011 uprising.

Back then, the UN had justified its imposition of a no-fly zone on the basis that civilians needed to be protected. Civilians are now threatened once more by violence, this time emanating from rebel militias – including those who were armed by the West to topple Gaddafi – yet there is no response from all the countries that were so keen to back the insurgents three years ago.

Evidently, the international urgency to protect civilians ended with the fall of Gaddafi: thus illustrating how Europe, the United States and the United Nations only feel compelled to intervene when civilians are threatened by a political leader whom they themselves have an interest in removing.

Naturally, Gonzi’s own part in the debacle - which to be fair did not extend to actively assisting the rebels through military or logistical support - is now ended; but the same does not apply to other states, which waded knee-deep into the fray in 2011. If Libya is in turmoil today, it is in part because of the irresponsible way in which local militias were armed, without any consideration given to their ultimate aims (or even their identity).

Apart from the double standards, as well as the injustice and danger the Libyan people are now exposed to as a result of this clearly botched international intervention, there is also the fall-out which affects the entire Mediterranean region. The Martin Galea incident, though now resolved for the best, is a small example of the way uninvolved countries such as Malta can be drawn into the vicious circle of violence and turmoil. Malta is now also braced for another refugee crisis, which is the inevitable result of war.

Faced with this situation, the countries and organisations which made themselves accessories to the revolution of 2011 now have a clear responsibility to help clean up the mess they in part created. In June, the European Union’s Foreign Office appeared to acknowledge this responsibility in a press release which declared that “the International Community must remain fully engaged in support of Libya and should act in a closely coordinated and coherent way led by the UN.”

Yet to date there is no direct engagement in support of Libya: on the contrary, European countries are abandoning the country in droves, and there is no audible talk of a UN-imposed no-fly zone to protect civilians.

It is therefore reasonable to ask exactly how and when the EU intends to make good on its own promise, and “engage in support of Libya”.

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