Even Gaddafi deserves justice

Saturday 22 October 2011

No matter where it happens, summary execution of unarmed prisoners is a war crime

The spectacle of young men queuing at a meat store in Misrata, eager to photograph the dead body of Muammar Gaddafi, is sickening. So is the mobile phone footage that’s emerged over the last two days, showing a dazed and increasingly bloody Gaddafi in the hands of a mob – a lynch mob, judging by the way the injured dictator was handled by his captors. Conflicting versions of Gaddafi’s final moments have been offered by members of the National Transitional Council, but the most likely account came from an anonymous member of the NTC: ‘They beat him very harshly and then they killed him. This is a war.’   

This is a war, and if this is what happened it is a war crime. So is the murder of Gaddafi’s son Mutassim, who was pictured relatively uninjured after his capture on Thursday, only to die shortly afterwards with a gaping wound in his throat. There is no ambiguity about the legal status of summary execution of unarmed prisoners, which demands an urgent investigation by an impartial body such as the UN. David Cameron’s claim that it is a matter for the Libyans to investigate is a shameful abdication of responsibility and we can expect no better from the Obama administration, with its own disgraceful record of extra-judicial executions.

Gaddafi was a horrible man. He was the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, which was ready and willing to try him for war crimes, along with his son Saif al-Islam. Saif is the only significant member of the regime still at large and the NTC should immediately acknowledge its responsibility to ensure that he is captured alive and delivered to The Hague. Many Libyans have died in the struggle for freedom and human rights, and the fact that the old regime has ended in this brutal manner is a denial of what they believed in.

Human rights are not an add-on, a luxury that people are granted when everything else is in place. They are the foundation of civil society, but the pictures coming out of Libya suggest that great numbers of adrenaline-fuelled young men have little understanding of that. The NTC urgently needs to emphasise two things: the importance of the rule of law and the absolute necessity that Libya’s new settlement is founded on values very different from the previous regime. There’s no doubt that Gaddafi and his followers would have behaved like this to unarmed prisoners, which is all the more reason for their captors to exercise restraint.

The Obama administration set an appalling example with its assassinations of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, two equally horrible men who should have faced trials at The Hague. A few days after the summary execution of bin Laden, British politicians including our present and past prime ministers flocked to Westminster Hall and listened raptly as Obama talked about shared values. No one asked how state-sponsored murder fits into those values, even though this country long ago abandoned capital punishment.

It’s not enough to talk about our commitment to human rights. We have to demonstrate our support for them, even if it upsets our allies in countries as far afield as the US and Libya. In the last 48 hours, we have witnessed a catastrophic failure of human decency, recorded without any apparent sense of shame on mobile phones. It will be nothing short of a tragedy if the new Libya is founded on savage acts of revenge reminiscent of the worst behaviour of the old.

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