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Whose Freedom? Canada in Libya

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There has been remarkably little opposition to Canada’s participation in the overthrow of Muamar Gaddafi. Each of the major political parties endorsed Canada’s initial involvement and its subsequent extension. While a substantial movement against Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan was developed and maintained for years, nothing comparable in scale has arisen in response to NATO policy in Libya.

Though the fate of post-Gaddafi Libya is completely unclear at the time of writing, two questions can help evaluate the Libyan war and other “humanitarian interventions”: is the policy of our government likely to help the situation? Does the evidence suggest that our government’s interests are in protecting civilian life and promoting democracy?

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, the original basis for the NATO campaign, authorizes a “no fly zone” and “all necessary measures to protect civilians,” which NATO leaders quickly twisted this into a justification for regime change. Professor Richard Falk writes that this amounts to “an unlawful use of force” and that the NATO bombings have “been ineffectual in stopping the violence in Libya, and likely responsible for its spread … while causing a rather large number of Libyan civilian deaths.” One such incident was NATO’s August 8th bombing of the town of Majer. Agence France Presse notes that “Reporters attended the funerals of victims and saw 28 bodies buried at the local cemetery….In the hospital morgue, 30 bodies … were shown along with other bodies which had been torn apart.” Also notable was the bombing of Libya’s state television buildings, which killed journalists and was, NATO admitted, deliberate. Moreover, a CNN report on the death of Hasan Ali Ibrahim, a civilian whose brother was a prominent official in the Gaddafi regime, describes Libyan civilians dying as a US apache helicopter fired on the central square of Zawiya, a large city.

Similarly, Concordia’s Maximilian Forte explains in his invaluable essay “Top Ten Myths in the War Against Libya” that NATO deems the lives of civilians in some areas of Libya more worthy of protection than in others:

“NATO has provided a shield for the insurgents in Libya to victimize unarmed civilians in areas they came to occupy … NATO assisted the rebels in starving Tripoli of supplies, subjecting its civilian population to a siege that deprived them of water, food, medicine, and fuel. When Gaddafi was accused of doing this to Misrata, the international media were quick to cite this as a war crime. Save Misrata, kill Tripoli.”

In recent years Gaddafi had been a useful friend to NATO states, selling them oil and torturing alleged “Islamists” on their behalf. However, Gaddafi was not as pliable as the West would’ve liked. Dr. Zoltan Grossman points out that “Although Western oil companies have long been present in [Gaddafi’s] Libya, so far the [state run] National Oil Company (NOC) controls about 50 percent of the oil resources. [Gaddafi] threatened in 2009 to nationalize the rest, as well as to invite in Russian and Chinese competitors.” Wikileaks released a November 2007 U.S. Embassy cable in which a US official noted “a growing concern in the International Oil Company community that NOC, emboldened by soaring oil prices and the press of would-be suitors, will seek better terms on both concession and production-sharing agreements.”

Yet the insurgents, according to Libération, promised 35% of Libya’s oil to France on March 29th 2011. Days after the fall of Tripoli, CNN reported that “International oil companies are jockeying for advantage in the new Libya” and that officials in Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) have suggested that those states most heavily involved in the conflict against the [Gaddafi] regime … will have an advantage when it comes to reconstruction projects.” Gaddafi also irritated the US in his efforts to foster African independence. As Murray Dobbin writes: “No living African leader can take [more] credit for giving direction to the African Union than [Gaddafi]….The U.S. has illegally frozen $30 billion belonging to the Libyan State Bank, assets that were, according to [Cameroonian] writer Jean-Paul Pougala, ‘earmarked as the Libyan contribution to three key projects which would add the finishing touches to the African federation—the African Investment Bank in Syrte, Libya, the establishment in 2011 of the African Monetary Fund to be based in Yaounde with a US$42 billion capital fund and the Abuja-based African Central Bank in Nigeria.’ The African Monetary Fund was expected to completely eliminate the pernicious influence of the IMF and its enforced privatization agenda.”

Though NATO has precipitated the fall of Gaddafi, a cruel dictator, it is not at all clear that their new allies are committed to human rights. As the London Review of Books notes: “many of [Gaddafi’s] henchmen will succeed him. Even Abdul Salam Jalloud, the country’s poisonous enforcer when Libya paid for the murder of British hostages in Lebanon and shot PC Yvonne Fletcher in London, joined the rebel cause. The commitment of other Gaddafi security and political personnel to freedom and democracy must be measured against the crimes they committed until they scented power coming from another direction.”

Moreover, since before NATO bombardment began, dark-skinned Libyans have been targeted by anti-Gaddafi fighters. On March 25th, the Los Angeles Times reported that “For a month, gangs of young gunmen have roamed the city, rousting Libyan blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa from their homes and holding them for interrogation as suspected mercenaries” though Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any such mercenaries existed. Racist incidents have persisted since Gaddafi’s fall. Amnesty International reported testimony in which migrant workers from Chad, Niger and Sudan described being subject to racist violence carried out by the rebels. And on September 4th, Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to “stop the arbitrary arrests and abuse of African migrant workers and black Libyans assumed to be mercenaries.”

NATO facilitated the overthrow of Gaddafi because Libya’s domestic uprising was for NATO both an opportunity and a threat: it was potentially beneficial as a chance to install a less volatile, more malleable ally, but also dangerous to NATO because a Libyan revolution left to its own devices could have on could have led to an independent-minded government. Our task now is to stop NATO states from building military bases in Libya and stacking the new Libyan government with NATO stooges, and to block any effort to interfere with Libyans’ capacity to use their resources as they see fit.

Greg Shupak is a writer, an activist and a PhD student.

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