In a 1936 essay Aldous Huxley summarised how warfare relies on dishonesty. “War is enormously discreditable to those who order it to be waged and even to those who merely tolerate its existence,” he wrote. “Furthermore, to developed sensibilities the facts of war are revolting and horrifying. To falsify these facts, and by so doing to make war seem less evil than it really is, and our own responsibility in tolerating war less heavy, is doubly to our advantage. By suppressing and distorting the truth, we protect our sensibilities and preserve our self-esteem.”
Shortly after reading those words, I checked NATO’s website and was greeted with cheerful images of Libyan children returning to school. The message was clear: now that Muammar Gaddafi is dead, the people who lived under his dictatorship can finally breathe easily. The truth, of course, is more sobering.
Yes, Gaddafi did appalling things. Hundreds of people suspected of opposing him “disappeared”. About 1,200 were estimated to have been massacred by his forces at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. The case for bringing him before the International Criminal Court (ICC) was compelling.
But who killed more Libyans: Gaddafi or NATO? While accurate data is impossible to come by, educated guesswork indicates that NATO caused a higher number of civilian deaths over the past six months than Gaddafi did over several decades.
According to estimates from the new Libyan government in September, at least 30,000 had died because of the war. Thomas Mountain, a member of an American group that laid flowers in Tripoli graveyards in 1987 to remember the children bombed at Ronald Reagan’s behest a year earlier, calculated (also in September) that NATO’s 2011 war involved the dropping of 30,000 bombs. Assuming that each bomb killed an average of two civilians, that brings the death toll to 60,000.
Supporting war crimes “all the way”
And what about those Libyan rebels that Catherine Ashton pledged to support “all the way”? When the EU’s foreign policy chief uttered those words during a visit to Benghazi in May, she did not specify what “all the way” meant. Did it include racist attacks on the inhabitants of Tawergha, a small town south of Misrata, who are largely descendants of African slaves? Human Rights Watch has reported in the past fortnight that witnesses and victims interviewed by its researchers provided “credible evidence of Misratan militias shooting and wounding unarmed Tawerghas and torturing detainees, in a few cases to death.” A report in August by Al Jazeera gave prima facie evidence that Ashton’s beloved rebels resorted to ethnic cleansing. It showed a large residential block set ablaze and one of the few remaining civilians left in Tawergha being evicted.
On 23 October, Ashton applauded the announcement of a “day of liberation” and exhorted the construction of a “new Libya based on respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles.” Two days earlier, the decomposing bodies of 53 people were found at the Mahari Hotel in Sirte. They appear to have been Gaddafi supporters, who were executed by Ashton’s rebel friends. Ashton has not yet made a public call for an investigation into their deaths. And why would she? The rebels who seem to have carried out the attacks had been told she supported them “all the way”.
And what exactly happened in Abu Salim hospital in Tripoli? In August, an Al Jazeera TV crew counted 39 dead bodies when it visited this trauma treatment centre. Numerous patients seem to have been killed in fighting between Gadaffi supporters and the rebels. Did any of the men Ashton promised to support carry out these atrocities?
And what about the killing of Gadaffi himself? I didn’t shed any tears over his death. But if we are to believe in the universality of human rights and international law, then they must not be applied selectively. There is a term for the deliberate killing of someone who is already in captivity during a conflict, as Gaddafi was. That term is war crime. It would be hypocritical to gloss over that fact, just because the assassination was undertaken by rebels that Ashton supports “all the way”.
Jean Bricmont, a Belgian academic, coined the phrase “humanitarian imperialism” to describe the agenda behind war in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The suffering of civilians in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq has been used as a pretext for military intervention by the US and its European lackeys, in an attempt to divert attention from their ulterior motives. The war against Libya fits that pattern.
Gaddafi had long been a tyrant. But until recently he was “our tyrant”; his rapprochement with the West meant he was a valued customer for our arms dealers. The Italian weapons company Finmeccanica had a backlog of orders worth 800 million euros with his regime when NATO started bombing Libya in March.
Ashton was not known to be troubled by the plight of Libyan civilians when her mentor Tony Blair was cosying up to Gaddafi. She has not expressed any disquiet either about the obscene haste which BP has displayed in trying to wrap its paws around Libyan oil contracts in the post-Gaddafi era. In 2007, that British corporation signed a 900 million dollar deal with the Tripoli authorities for exploiting two wells. Bob Dudley, the chief executive, says “we remain enthused” by their potential now that BP can return to them. You bet he does.
●First published by New Europe, 7 November 2011.