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As Calls for Intervention in Syria Grow, Vijay Prashad Urges Reevaluation of NATO Attack on Libya

Picture Credit: Guardian

In an interview on Democracy Now!, Professor Vijay Prashad expounds upon NATO’s worrying attitude toward its intervention in Libya.  While using “human rights abuses” as a justification for intervention, NATO has repeatedly blocked attempts to investigate alleged war crimes committed during its humanitarian campaign in 2011. The lack of self-reflection, evaluation and assessment following a campaign waged in the name of protecting civilians, suggests a deliberate obfuscation of the facts, and an obstruction of any attempts to uncover the true cost of military intervention in Libya.

By Democracy Now! and Vijay Prashad

February 21, 2012
Link to Video


AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Libya, which has just marked the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled Mummar Gaddafi’s four-decade rule. On Friday, thousands of people turned out for celebrations in Tripoli and Benghazi, Misurata and other towns. Another milestone was reached Monday, when Misurata residents elected a new city council in the first election since Gaddafi’s fall.

But as Libya celebrates a new era free of the Gaddafi regime, there are growing concerns the country’s lingering divisions will tear it apart. Libya remains deeply splintered by regions and factions. More than 500 militias exist throughout the country, leading to ongoing human rights abuses that resemble those under the Gaddafi regime.

In a report last week, Amnesty International said armed militias are committing human rights violations without punishment, with alleged Gaddafi loyalists suffering the worst abuses. The report’s co-author, Amnesty’s Carsten Jürgensen, said torture is widespread.

CARSTEN JÜRGENSEN: Horrific images of people who have been tortured and abused, people who have been tortured very recently when we saw them, in some cases only hours before. In fact, my colleagues saw detainees being beaten in a courtyard of a prison. And people have shown us, you know, obvious traces of torture, being whipped, or people also told us they have been subjected to electric shocks. People have been beaten by all sorts of objects.

AMY GOODMAN: The ongoing abuses in Libya have been far overshadowed by the crisis in Syria, where thousands of people have died in what is likely the Arab Spring’s bloodiest conflict to date. With estimates of well over 5,000 deaths, the shocking toll in Syria has sparked ongoing calls for international intervention to stop the bloodshed. Speaking Monday in Cairo, Republican Senator John McCain called for the arming of the Syrian rebels by countries other than the United States.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I am not saying that the United States needs to directly supply arms to the Syrian National Army. I am saying that there are ways to get assistance, ranging from medical assistance to technical assistance, such as GPS and other things that we could provide the Syrian National Army, support of the Syrian National Council, and there are ways to get weapons into Syria. It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.

AMY GOODMAN: Efforts at a united international response to the Syrian crisis have faltered over a major division between the U.S., European Union and Arab League, on one side, and Russia and China, on the other. Earlier this month, Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime’s crackdown. The U.N. General Assembly passed a measure with similar language just last week. Later this week, Syrian opposition leaders plan to hold talks with international officials at a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Tunis. The 22-member Arab League has endorsed the meeting, and the U.S., European Union and Russia are among those invited to attend.

Well, in this month marking the first anniversary of the Libyan uprising, I’m joined by Vijay Prashad, who argues the NATO intervention in Libya offers key lessons for the debate over an international response to Syria. Vijay Prashad is chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, author of twelve books, most recently The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. His forthcoming book, to be released in April, is calledArab Spring, Libyan Winter. He’s joining us from Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Professor Prashad, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what’s happened in Libya in this year.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, of course, there has been the uprising a year ago. The uprising, it seems to me, within a month of breaking out in February, had gained immense momentum. And at its highest point, it was at the time when NATO decided to intervene. There was a conversion of an uprising, an internal civil war, into a NATO intervention. By May, there were already concerns from Amnesty International that there were maybe atrocities by NATO, by rebel forces and by Gaddafi’s troops, that it was a very dangerous soup of violence in Libya. This, Amnesty said in May of last year. The, basically, struggle ended by September, October.

In October, Amnesty did another very important report suggesting that if human rights is going to be used as a lubricant for intervention, one has to be very careful to continue to investigate the violence. One has to not only document violence, but also see that the perpetrators are prosecuted. And one has to bring a society to some kind of closure. This is what Amnesty began to say in October. Those were very prescient words from Amnesty, because, indeed, what Amnesty had proposed has not happened since October.

And Libya today, for all the jubilation about the removal of Gaddafi, who without question was an authoritarian dictator, without all—you know, without setting aside that jubilation, there are some serious questions about the future of Libya. In Misurata, yes, you’re right, there was an election on Monday to create a new city council. At the same time, Médecins Sans Frontières withdrew its entire team, because they are worried about the custodial deaths and extrajudicial torture that is taking place. In the town of Kufra, in the south of Libya, there is the continuation of the war. Weapons are all across the country.

So there is a serious need to evaluate what has happened in Libya as a result not only of the Gaddafi atrocities, of the rise of a rebellion, but also significantly of the nature of the NATO intervention. And that evaluation has not happened. I’m afraid that is really calling into question the use of human rights as a lubricant for intervention. If we can’t go back and evaluate what has happened, I think a lot of people around the world are afraid of going forward into another intervention, where the lessons of Libya have not been learned.

AMY GOODMAN: Late last year, the United Nations Security Council rejected a probe into the deaths of civilians during the NATO bombing of Libya. At the time, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said a probe is needed to determine the exact toll.

AMB. VITALY CHURKIN: The matter of civilian casualties, we believe, is particularly—from the bombing campaign, is particularly important, because we need to have a serious analysis. Some members of the Council, I can share with you, thought that somehow it was a diversion from Syria, from—coming from us, asking why we’re not discussing Syria. I gave a very simple response: because today we are discussing Libya. It is on our agenda. So it’s a matter coming out of the situation in Libya. So, this is where it stands now.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States refused to allow a U.N. Security Council probe into Libyan civilian deaths. In response to the proposal, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice accused Russia of trying to distract from its opposition to a measure condemning the Syrian crackdown.

AMB. SUSAN RICE: This is a distraction and a diversion, and it is a diversion from the fact that this Council’s actions, and that of NATO and its partners, save tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Libyan lives. That is something we should be celebrating. It is certainly something that the people of Libya are celebrating. And if the Libyans want to work with NATO to investigate any concerns they have, we’re more than willing to do that. I think it’s notable that we have not heard that call from the Libyan government. So, let us—let us see this for what it is. This is duplicative, it’s redundant, it’s superfluous, and it’s a stunt.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the U.S. U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice. Vijay Prasad, your response?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, I mean, it’s very interesting that Ambassador Rice says, "Let us hear it from the Libyans." The question is—the Libyans right now barely have control over the state. They barely have monopoly over violence in the country itself. The government is not fully formed. To expect them to come out and ask for a NATO probe at the same time as there are 8,500 extrajudicial detainees inside Libyan jails is rather, I think, a distraction in itself.

The real question is, why won’t NATO allow an evaluation of the Libyan war? What if we discover that the number of civilian casualties, the bombing in places like Marjah, the bombing in places in the center of Tripoli, had indeed cost the lives of a very large number of civilians? What is the harm of NATO coming under an evaluation? It will demonstrate, for instance, the actual commitment to human rights and to responsibility to protect civilians that the United States purports to support. So, the fact that they are not allowing an evaluation causes concern around the world. It means, perhaps, that the bombing campaigns are not going to protect civilians. They might, in fact, exacerbate the danger to civilians.

You know, you have to keep in mind that when the U.N. human rights chief, Navi Pillay, wanted to speak about Libya, the U.N. General—the U.N. Security Council said, "You can present your report on Syria, but it must be done—on Libya, but the Libyan report must be done in a closed session." The Syrian report produced by human rights chair, Navi Pillay, could be done in an open session. In other words, it seems as if the West and NATO, in particular, does not want to have a discussion about Libya in public, but it wants to utilize human rights as a way to start wars, not a way to evaluate what has happened in a society.

Libya is going to suffer from a lack of truth and reconciliation, from a lack of evaluation of the full cycle of human rights investigation to prosecution. You have to remember that when the head of the International Criminal Court, Mr. Moreno Ocampo, decided to frame arrest warrants against Gaddafi, Abdullah Senussi and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, he framed those warrants immediately. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was arrested last year and is continuing to be held without being handed over to the ICC. And the ICC—nor has NATO asked for habeas corpus, in other words, the delivery of Saif al-Islam for trial in the International Criminal Court. These are serious questions about the truncating of a human rights process towards war making rather than towards peace making. So I don’t see this as a distraction; I see this as the fundamental question.

And it is precisely why the Russians and the Chinese are loathe to give another open-ended resolution to allow NATO to continue war making in Syria. They have said quite clearly that unless the resolution says this is not going to invoke Chapter 7, Article 42, of the U.N. Charter—in other words, the right to make war or to preserve the principles of the United Nations—unless it says specifically that this resolution is not under Chapter 7, we cannot sign on to it. So, I think there are some serious issues at stake. This veto by the Russians and the Chinese is not disgusting or a distraction. It’s about the principles involved here and whether this is just about a power grab by the West or a genuine concern for the people of Libya and Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, we’ll leave it there. I thank you so much for being with us, professor at Trinity College. His latest book, just coming out, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, it’s out in April.


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