Louise Hemfrey asks whether international handwringing could lead to intervention

Arab hospitality

A few days ago the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that General Gaddafi of Libya and his government are to be investigated for Crimes Against Humanity.  Libya, which has neither signed nor ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and is therefore not legally under its jurisdiction, had its ‘crisis’ referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council on the 26th February, the one exception allowing an investigation without prior consent of the state in question.  The vote was unanimous, including such unsigned and major players as the United States, China and Russia – posing the question: is this a becoming a case of international pro-action?

Specifically, the ICC are inspecting the alleged massacre of civilian protestors by the military. However, more details of what the media are labelling as ‘Gaddafi’s oppressive regime’ are bound to arise. Crimes Against Humanity are defined in the Rome Statute as ‘particularly odious offences that constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings’, the full explanation of which is specific to all state or governing bodies, and legally binds signatories to uphold the treaty in their territory.  The full list of crimes includes murder, torture, enslavement, imprisonment, sexual violence, persecution of minorities, deportation, forced disappearance and any other inhumane acts. Gaddafi has pulled a very foul move in hiring North African mercenaries to combat the uprisings; these paid guns have no personal affiliation to the country, and so have no qualms when the order is ‘shoot to kill’, regardless of whether the target is a militant or civilian.  However, it is ultimately Gaddafi who will stand trial, as he is the one condoning the murder of his own people.  Only once before has an un-ratified state been referred to the ICC for investigation, the case of Darfur-Sudan in 2005, which exemplifies the gravity with which the Libyan situation is being considered.

Are we seeing international pro-action, or the early enlivening of such a notion?  After all, the situation is far less severe than in previous cases where there have been calls for humanitarian assistance, namely Rwanda. But it’s never to late to start acting, and as the ICC is a brand new twenty-first century creation, perhaps it is hoping to set itself a precedent?  Involvement of the UN also enhances the legitimacy of the case; although the UN is not always the most decisive of centres, it is still widely regarded, at least diplomatically, as an overarching force for good.  This could also explain the lack of intervention thus far by the US, which does not want to be regarded as singularly condoning military action; with a UN resolution on the issue, the resulting measures would be part of a global coalition, very probably still led by the US, but with the input of a diverse group of states.

The official bill for investigation could take up to twelve months to be processed by the ICC, leaving plenty of time for violence to escalate.  If the UN Security Council did not commit to a resolution until there was legal clearance from the court, the situation would most certainly turn to a case of reaction.  The rebels are not likely to quit their campaign any time soon, and mainstream media outlets such as Al Jazeera and the Telegraph are even calling this Libya’s new civil war. The international community would like to believe that an organic liberation movement will prevail, as it has done in other Middle Eastern states, but unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Gaddafi does not look set to relinquish power any time soon.  Which also brings to light other undisclosed issues, such as the religious affiliation of the country, the popularity of extremist groups, and the Western fear of nations voting in a fundamentalist party when democracy is enacted.

I’m sure we’re all aware of the norm of the global system: international inaction.  Interventions generally have some ulterior motive.  Libya affords several, most crucially oil – a resource the permanent members of the Security Council hold in particularly high regard.  However, since the end of the Cold War, intervention on the grounds of humanitarianism has become an increasingly fashionable obligation, if somewhat unfulfilled.  NATO’s action during the Bosnian Crisis of the nineties is hailed as the most successful intervention. Even though the country’s administration is still run by the international body, at least the opposing factions aren’t committing genocide anymore.  Also Afghanistan, where deposition of the Taliban for Human Rights abuses, and the Western security agenda, happened to be one and the same catalyst.  But is Libya’s need great enough?

Statistics vary widely, and there is no official figure, but it is estimated that over one thousand people were killed by the government during the ‘peaceful’ protests of late February.  Now that the country is practically entrenched in a civil war, this number is bound to escalate.  The ICC has also issued a warning to the opposition forces – in an attempt to curb the distribution of illegal arms – that they equally could find themselves under investigation.  Gaddafi has addressed the West with a warning that ‘Libya would become a bloodbath – worse than Iraq’ if military action was taken.   The big players, if they are going to act in Libya, will have to balance the prospective damages from intervention with the unknown cost of non-intervention in their strategies.  The policy in the region so far, however, has been to observe, rather than support, the popular uprisings.  A reactionary change in procedure could establish a prerequisite for pro-action in the future, but that might not be a commitment international powers wish to make.

Louise Hemfrey