The UN’s Libya failures

Perhaps if more pressure had been brought to bear against Gaddafi, Libya’s citizens would not now be getting shot down in the streets.

Gaddafi, Arab League summit 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Gaddafi, Arab League summit 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
It was an old and festering wound in Libyans’ collective memory that was the immediate cause of the bloody clashes that broke out in the streets of Benghazi last Tuesday evening.
A group of families whose sons were brutally massacred by the Libyan authorities would not abandon their quest for justice. They refused to be rebuffed yet again by state officials.
In 1996, an estimated 1,200 prisoners, mostly opponents of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime, were rounded up and gunned down in the space of a few hours in Tripoli’s infamous Abu Salim prison. The victims’ bodies were reportedly removed from the prison in wheelbarrows and refrigerated trucks and buried in mass graves. To this day, the Libyan authorities refuse to disclose the whereabouts of these graves. It wasn't until 2004 that Gaddafi admitted that the massacre had taken place.
The families of the victims, represented by human rights activist Fathi Terbil, wanted more than an admission.
When Terbil was arrested early last Tuesday, Libyans took to the streets in protest, two days before a previously planned “Day of Rage” was slated for cities across the country. Human Rights Watch estimated on Sunday that 233 people had been killed in the ongoing protests, many the victims of indiscriminate machine-gun fire directed at peaceful protesters by a coalition of commandos and foreign mercenaries loyal to Gaddafi. The NGO is warning of a new human rights crisis in Libya.
NEITHER THE Abu Salim prison massacre nor the many other human rights abuses perpetrated by Gaddafi’s regime over the past four decades have been singled out for censure by the world’s purported protector of human rights – the UN’s Human Rights Council.
Established in 2006 with a mandate to reform its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the HRC has in the past five years issued some 50 resolutions that condemn countries; of those, 35 have been focused on Israel, and not one has been issued against Libya. Even as of Monday evening, as protesters were being shot down in the streets of Libya, no emergency session of the HRC had been called by its members, which include the US and the EU, as Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, noted in a soon-to-appear interview with The Jerusalem Post’s Ilan Evyatar. Neuer called this omission by the HRC and its members “not only a let-down to the many Libyans risking their lives for freedom, but a shirking of [the HRC’s] obligations.”
Indeed, instead of being condemned, Libya has been lionized. In May 2010, Libya was, absurdly, elected as a member of the HRC, a move that was not blocked by the Obama administration (as Iran’s bid for membership was). This was the culmination of a steady ascendancy to every important diplomatic body at the UN – including the African Union chairmanship, the UN Security Council and the presidency of the UN General Assembly. In a 100-minute rant given before the assembly in September 2009, his first since he took control of Libya in a military coup in 1969, Gaddafi exploited the opportunity to liken the UN Security Council to a “terror council” because of the veto rights enjoyed by the US and the other four UNSC permanent members.
A month earlier, the man US president Richard Nixon had referred to as the “mad dog of the Middle East” met with former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.
“Late evening with Col. Kaddafi at his ‘ranch’ in Libya – interesting meeting with an interesting man,” McCain tweeted the next day. Several weeks later, this “interesting man” ignored McCain’s request not to give a “hero’s welcome” to freed Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al- Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent.
WHILE ‘ENGAGEMENT’ has proved a dismal failure, other methods have been more effective. It should be recalled that it was in the wake of the US’s invasion of Iraq that Gaddafi, anxious not to become America’s next target, magnanimously offered to scrap his nascent nuclear program.
Although the US no longer enjoys the kind of influence it had in the region after the Iraq invasion, the Obama administration can move from a defensive strategy in the UN of vetoing the many anti-Israel resolutions, to an offensive approach – along with other democracies – singling out countries like Libya in a concerted shame campaign.
Perhaps if more pressure had been brought to bear against Gaddafi when he just might have been ready to listen, Libya’s citizens would not now be getting shot down in the streets by a “mad dog” regime. At the very least, the UN would have retained a modicum of moral legitimacy.