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What Gaddafi’s death doesn’t mean for Libya

October 22, 2011

There’s been a fair amount of moral outrage and demands for investigation into what was essentially the summary execution of Gaddafi a few days ago. Human Rights Watch, as well as more than a few governments, and any number of informed observers of the conflict have all weighed in with varying degrees of displeasure and alarm about the way the dictator, whose body (as of the time of writing) is in a meat locker awaiting burial, met his end.

There are some arguments, however, which purport to be more than moral and emotional, and they ought be refuted. I say this as somebody who opposed the course foreign intervention took in Libya and felt the attempt at regime change exceeded the UNSC mandate, and as somebody genuinely skeptical of the prospects for Libya post-Gaddafi.

The most strange of these arguments is that Gaddafi’s execution somehow harms the prospects for rule of law and democracy in Libya, and that capture and trial would have been a superior outcome for the country’s democracy. Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Leah Whitson put it most concisely: “Finding out how they died matters. It will set the tone for whether the new Libya will be ruled by law or by summary violence.”

Gaddafi’s execution does not harm “rule by law” in Libya because rule by law does not exist in Sirte, which was a combat zone being contested by a regime deposed specifically for ignoring the imperatives of “rule by law” and paramilitary forces and partisans that know nothing of the Geneva conventions, nor are they agents of law enforcement. Building rule of law in Libya is about many things, from the ascendance of pro-democratic elites, institutionalizing central government and establishing a monopoly on force, but it is not about the “tone.” Trying Gaddafi in a court and treating him humanely would not solve any of these problems.

To assume that treating Gaddafi differently would have symbolically helped stabilize Libyan society assumes that Gaddafi really does have some sort of metaphysical bond with the fate of Libya. Trying him in a court does not protect the former Gaddafi supporters whose names will never be heard on Western media. It does not magically create “rule of law” across the entire country, it creates rule of law for one man.

We saw the most obvious demonstration of this with the treatment, trial, and execution of Saddam Hussein. That trial did nothing to unify Iraq and nothing to establish rule of law in the country. The civil war intensified as the trial wore on. Why would we expect anything else? A trial that occurs in the absence of the institutions with the support to legitimately draft laws and the capacity to plausibly enforce them is just a trial, and nor did conducting that trial suffice to build those institutions, that support, or that capacity. The same would have been the case in Libya.

Gaddafi is not just another citizen in the Libyan mindset. He was the central figure in one of the world’s longest running tyrannies who had few compulsions about using the full extent of state power against the Libyan people. There is no excuse for being surprised by this treatment, Libyans have been hanging Gaddafi in effigy since February. The entire revolution was held together by hatred of this man, his family, and their crimes. He was an enemy of the people in the same way Gaddafi held the “rats” to be enemies of the state.

There is a case to be made for ensuring that pro-Gaddafi Libyans are treated differently, obviously, but there is little reason to think that agonizing over how Gaddafi was killed will somehow make them better off. If the West, liberal governments and human rights NGOs actually wants to push Libya towards a government ruled by law, then it ought recognize that alienating Libyans through probing into the death of Gaddafi – of all people – is not a very good way to maintain leverage and influence within the Libyan political and legal system. Nor should we pretend we have lot some grand opportunity to advance Libya’s future with Gaddafi’s death, indeed, the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. There is probably no better way to discredit the rule of law than to employ it in the service of an indisputable enemy of the people in a country where there are genuine and popular political alternatives to the Western-liberal conception of its role.

There are too many important and serious issues affecting average Libyans – among both supporters and opponents of the old regime – to over-personalize the issue of Libyan regime change and over-emphasize the fait accompli of Gaddafi’s execution. His death is a symptom of Libya’s problems, it will only be a cause if we choose to hold it against them.




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  1. Media and the Middle East

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