A matter of principle

The Government of Guyana, normally so garrulous on the subject of democracy and human rights, has been quite quiet on the matter of Libya and the violence visited by Muammar Gaddafi on his citizens. With the exception of spokesman, Dr Prem Misir, who unofficially expressed support for US participation in the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, the administration has sheltered behind the anondyne statement issued at the end of the meeting of Caricom heads in Grenada. Their communiqué called for a resolution of the Libyan crisis through dialogue, and for conditions which would allow the exercise of “fundamental human rights.”

Not a hint of daring there, although they did condemn the use of violence by the state to suppress anti-government protests. Anything stronger was unlikely. In the first place, before the demonstrations started in Benghazi, Colonel Gaddafi was on the verge of opening an Eastern Caribbean branch of the Libyan Bank. In addition, several of the smaller Caricom territories are members of ALBA, President Chávez’s pet hemispheric pact, and would hesitate to contradict his publicly declared positions on the subject.

As Reuters reported last week, Mr Chávez himself had no doubts the whole no-fly zone exercise was aimed at seizing Libya’s oil reserves. He was quoted as saying: “These are men of war… what irresponsibility. Behind this is the hand of the United States and its European allies, instead of taking the path that we have modestly proposed… Another imposition of the warmongering politics of the Imperial Yankee and its allies is unfortunate, and it is unfortunate that the United Nations endorses the war, in contravention of its fundamental principles. We know what is going to happen: bombs, bombs, bombs, war, more suffering for the people… this is the hand of capitalism.”

The “path” he “modestly proposed” was a reference to his offer of mediation, which Reuters said was tentatively accepted by Mr Gaddafi, and then promptly torpedoed by his son, Saif. The Secretary General of the African Union, Jean Ping, has also condemned the UN Resolution, saying in a Hard Talk interview that the situation needed diplomacy, not force. Closer to home, our neighbour Brazil too is not lending support to Resolution 1973, and had called at an earlier stage for a ceasefire. Set against this the fact that the Arab League agreed to a no-fly zone, although after the missile strikes on Libyan air defences, and the French bombing of a military column outside Benghazi, its Secretary General Amr Moussa did seem to waver somewhat. For all of that the Arab League is still, more or less, on board.

As with the Caribbean, different interests are playing out; in the case of the Arab League, Colonel Gaddafi had long been at odds with his Arab colleagues, and where Saudi Arabia in particular is concerned, Riyadh is convinced that he had been behind a plot to assassinate King Abdullah. Their own autocratic regimes notwithstanding, the members of the League would be quite happy to see Mr Gaddafi go, although for obvious reasons given recent history in Iraq they would not want to be seen to be backing Western air strikes which might kill Arabs – hence Mr Moussa’s apparent ambivalence.

Given the hiatus with the Arabs, the Libyan leader had turned his attention to the African Union, where his oil diplomacy proved no less successful in winning friends than did that of Mr Chávez. Some of the Colonel’s defenders in Africa south of the Sahara, of course, themselves lead regimes which are far to the right of democratic. And on our own continent, Mr Chávez has cemented alliances with some autocratic and eccentric leaders in his pursuit of a kind of unofficial entente with those who share his hostility to the US. The Libyan leader was one of those, although it must be said that he had come in from the Western cold in more recent times.  The argument from the African Union and Mr Chávez that diplomacy should solve the problem has little persuasiveness when dealing with a leader who will not negotiate in good faith, and will just treat any mediation as a stalling tactic so he can pursue his military ends ultimately. Mr Gaddafi’s declaration of a ceasefire while he was doggedly pursuing hostilities is illustrative of this.

It is the Europeans (France and the UK primarily) and a reluctant US that are in the forefront of the current action; the contribution of the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, for example, will be a token one.  The Europeans have a stake in the outcome; among other things, they do not want to be flooded by the thousands of refugees who would cross the Mediterranean seeking asylum if Mr Gaddafi regained control. For their part, the Americans have no particular vested interests in Libya; despite the rapprochement with the Colonel, unlike the UK, they were in no rush to invest there.

The American reluctance to impose a no-fly zone with all that that implied, was very clear from the start, and the US Secretary of Defence made his reservations known early on. However, it might be observed that the geography of Libya makes it viable for the West to strike military installations and hardware in the desert away from population centres, and so meaningfully restrict civilian casualties. Nevertheless, various military officials and an army of commentators have been relentlessly pointing out the defects in the operation. In fairness, the problems are obvious, the main one being conceptual: The military objectives are not in consonance with the political aims. The Western politicians want Mr Gaddafi and his regime to go, and the UN resolution – vague though it is – clearly limits the scope of the military action. This has a purely humanitarian purpose and is not designed to force out the Colonel. The situation is not helped by a certain fuzziness within NATO about control of the operation and specific strikes.

Then there is the fact that there is no exit strategy. The truth of the matter is, however, that there can’t be an exit strategy because there is no end game with the no-fly zone; it is more of a containment exercise and therefore could lead to a stalemate. And the stalemate could potentially go on for a long time. Then there is the matter of the rebels themselves, whom all the military pundits say are too much of a rag-tag bunch to take on Gaddafi’s well-trained and better-equipped troops. And while there is some discussion that Resolution 1973 would not prohibit the arming of the rebels, the pessimists say that even if that were to be done they lack the training and experience to defeat the pro-Gaddafi forces – although with their re-entry into Ajdabiyah yesterday, perhaps a little more optimism could be indulged.

Finally, of course, no one could be sure what kind of government would succeed Gaddafi if he went, or if the situation would simply dissolve into chaos. Unlike Egypt, Libya has none of the institutions necessary for any kind of democratic government, in addition to which it has its tribal divisions. What it has going for it is an apparently well-educated population and an interim rebel administration some of whose members have lived in democracies abroad.

It is President Obama who has come in for the most criticism, especially within the United States, for his decision to go into Libya; the European actors have no such difficulties. But the bottom line is, would the American critics have been prepared to watch on CNN as Colonel Gaddafi sent his tanks into Benghazi, a city of a million people, to mow down buildings and shoot every citizen in sight? Would they have been able to stomach it as the escapees who made it to Lampedusa recounted to a worldwide TV audience their harrowing tales of death, torture and suffering, and children shot in cold blood? Would they have found a figure of tens of thousands and maybe more killed something they could brush away without a pang of unease? Would they really have felt no twinge of guilt when Libyan refugees blamed the West in general and the US in particular for the carnage? Is it not the case that if the US had stood idly by in such circumstances, the same critics would have lambasted their President for not acting?

It seems, unfortunately, that Mr Obama is a victim of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’

There is no doubt about Colonel Gaddafi’s ruthlessness and brutality; there is enough evidence of that both now and in the past. Where this issue is concerned, it doesn’t matter, therefore, what the US has done or not done in times gone by; it doesn’t matter that its invasion of Iraq, for example, was unacceptable and a catastrophe all around; it doesn’t even matter that the Libyan operation is being undertaken in the dark with no certainty about the outcome, after all, even what appear to be certain outcomes have a way of springing surprises. The only issue is, is it right for nations which have the means to prevent a major massacre and have been asked by probably the majority of the Libyan people to save them, to just stand back and let it happen, as they did in Rwanda? Surely the answer has to be no.

This time then, the US and the others involved in enforcing the no-fly zone and preventing attacks by Mr Gaddafi’s forces on civilians, have got it right. So why can’t Guyana, despite its insignificance on the world stage, ignore what Brazil has decided and certainly what Venezuela has decided, and try and cajole its Caricom partners into voicing support for Resolution 1973. If they do not want to go this route, which some of them will probably not want to do, there is nothing preventing Takuba Lodge from speaking out. It’s a matter of principle.

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