Saturday, August 27, 2011

Freedom in Libya

NATO leaders and the National Transitional Council are declaring a victory for the Libyan people. US and European media – embedded with NATO and the rebels – have been euphoric in their reporting of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. While the demise of a despot must always be celebrated, the sad reality is that a war waged in the name of human rights and protecting civilians has unleashed immense death, human suffering and destruction.

Fighting continues to rage throughout Tripoli and other parts of the country. Given ongoing enmities between loyalists and rebels and within the opposition movements, there is a strong possibility the situation will evolve into long-term insurgency. In the absence of institutions, infrastructure and basic services, or a basic policing presence to ensure law and order, it seems all that Libyans have to look forward to is more instability and a fight for daily survival. Looking beyond the immediate blood-lust of conflict and inevitable retribution, winning the war could prove easier than rebuilding a country devastated by 6 months of war.
The facts are often buried in the euphoria of commentary and “informed opinion” we are hearing on major news channels.  I have taken the liberty of piecing together eye witness accounts, reliable reporting and the reports of international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International’s testimonies from Tripoli residents, to illustrate the magnitude of the crisis in Libya at this point in the conflict.  

Tripoli seems to have an abundance of guns but nothing else. Formerly one of Africa's safest cities, Tripoli can now be classed as one of the world's most dangerous and volatile. Arming an entire population on the brink of collapse is never a good idea. There are few positive examples of state-building when there is an excessive accumulation of arms. One need only look at the recent example of Iraq. This nasty side-effect of escalating a war was ignored in the haste for regime change.

According to the mainstream press, seventy percent of homes in Tripoli are without running water. Most neighborhoods of the city have little or no electricity.  Fresh produce is unattainable. Medicines, oxygen, first aid products, surgical material are in short supply or non-existant.  This is in a country that only 6 months ago enjoyed the highest Human Development Index and the highest Gross National Income per capita in Africa (owing to oil revenues, a relatively small population, redistributive policies including an extensive social welfare system and subsidies for basic goods, See African Economic outlook and UN HDI reports)

News reports and statements from international aid agencies warn of a humanitarian catastrophe in the city. Reporting from a local hospital, the Telegraph said: “As battle raged in the Tripoli streets hundreds of casualties were brought in, rebel fighters, Gaddafi’s soldiers, and unlucky civilians, laying next to each other in bed and even on a floor awash with blood, screaming or moaning in agony. Many died before they could be treated.”

The paper interviewed Dr. Mahjoub Rishi, the hospital’s Professor of Surgery: “There were hundreds coming in within the first few hours. It was like a vision from hell. Missile injuries were the worst. The damage they do to the human body is shocking to see, even for someone like me who is used to dealing with injuries.” Most of the casualties, he said, were civilians caught in the crossfire.
The Telegraph reported that Tripoli’s two other major hospitals were similarly overflowing with casualties and desperately understaffed, as were all of the city’s private hospitals.
The aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) warned that the city is facing a medical “catastrophe”. The group told Reuters that “Medical supplies ran low during six months of civil war [i.e., NATO bombardment] but have almost completely dried up in the siege and battle of the past week. Fuel supplies have run out and the few remaining medical workers are struggling to get to work.” The lack of fuel means that hospitals that have kept their power by running generators can now no longer do so.
Health officials in Tripoli report that blood supplies have run out at the hospitals and that food and drinking water is unavailable over whole areas of Tripoli.

An important question is who will now work the hospitals, clean the streets, provide the basic services. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have fled and many more will choose to leave as rebels target them in misguided retribution. 

Amnesty International has raised urgent concerns about the killing, torture and brutalization of people being rounded up by the “rebels,” particularly African migrant workers who have been singled out for retribution because of the color of their skin.

Kim Sengupta of the Independent reported Thursday from the Tripoli neighborhood of Abu Salim, which the “rebels” stormed under the cover of NATO air strikes. Known as a pro-Gaddafi area, its residents have paid the price of living in the wrong area.
“There was no escape for the residents of Abu Salim, trapped as the fighting spread all around them,” Sengupta reported. “In the corner of a street, a man who was shot in the crossfire, the back of his blue shirt soaked in blood, was being carried away by three others. ‘I know that man, he is a shopkeeper,’ said Sama Abdessalam Bashti, who had just run across the road to reach his home. ‘The rebels are attacking our homes. This should not be happening.
“‘The rebels are saying they are fighting government troops here, but all those getting hurt are ordinary people, the only buildings being damaged are those of local people. There has also been looting by the rebels, they have gone into houses to search for people and taken away things. Why are they doing this?’”
Both the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies documented a massacre perpetrated against Gaddafi supporters in a square adjacent to the presidential compound that was stormed and looted on Tuesday.
“The bodies are scattered around a grassy square next to Moammar Gadhafi’s compound of Bab al-Aziziya. Prone on grassy lots as if napping, sprawled in tents. Some have had their wrists bound by plastic ties,” AP reported.
“The identities of the dead are unclear but they are in all likelihood activists that set up an impromptu tent city in solidarity with Gadhafi outside his compound in defiance of the NATO bombings.”
AP said that the grisly discovery raised “the disturbing specter of mass killings of noncombatants, detainees and the wounded.”
Among the bodies of the executed the report added were several that “had been shot in the head, with their hands tied behind their backs. A body in a doctor’s green hospital gown was found in the canal. The bodies were bloated.”
Reporting from the same killing field, Reuters counted 30 bodies “riddled with bullets”. It noted that “Five of the dead were at a field hospital nearby, with one in an ambulance strapped to a gurney with an intravenous drip still in his arm.” Two of the bodies, it said, “were charred beyond recognition.”
An important question in all of this is whether turning Libya into Iraq (and yes, I have read all the articles analysing why this isn't Iraq) is really an exercise in liberating a country.  Once Benghazi was protected and secured, the quest for regime change was inevitably going to compromise the much vaunted mission of "protecting civilians."  Negotiating with the regime was an option on the table at many stages of the 6 month conflict.  Political freedom is important but this is rarely achievable in a situation of anarchy and lawlessness. As in Iraq, it will be a long time before Libyan citizens experience political freedoms. In the meantime, it will be a fight for daily survival. One can only hope that Libyans really do get to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that has been promised to them since Gaddafi deposed King Idris, improved living standards and ensured that Libyans got a share of oil proceeds. Maintaining these living standards and Libya's freedom from foreign interference (from foreign Governments and corporations) would be a better measure of victory. 


25 August 2011
Both sides to the ongoing conflict in Libya must ensure that detainees in their custody are not tortured or otherwise ill-treated Amnesty International said today.

The call followed reports from Amnesty International's delegation in Libya on Tuesday, which has gathered powerful testimonies from survivors of abuse at the hands of both pro-Gaddafi soldiers and rebel forces, in and around the town of Az-Zawiya.

    Against fighters loyal to Colonel Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi
On Tuesday, Amnesty International met officials at Bir Tirfas School which is now being used to detain pro-Gaddafi soldiers, alleged foreign mercenaries, and suspected Gaddafi loyalists.

The officials said that they would not repeat the human rights violations of the former regime. They vowed to uphold the rights of the detainees to be treated with dignity and afforded fair trials. 

In an overcrowded cell, where some 125 people were held with barely enough room to sleep or move, a boy told Amnesty International how he had responded to calls by al-Gaddafi’s government for volunteers to fight the opposition.

He said that he was driven to a military camp in Az-Zawiya, where he was handed a Kalashnikov rifle that he did not know how to use.

He told Amnesty International: “When NATO bombed the camp around 14 August, those who survived fled. I threw my weapon on the ground, and asked for refuge in a home nearby. I told the owners what happened, and I think they called the revolutionaries [thuuwar], because they came shortly after.

"They shouted for me to surrender. I put my hands up in the air. They made me kneel on the ground and put my hands behind by head. Then one told me to get up. When I did, he shot me in the knee at close range. I fell on the ground, and they continued beating me with the back of their rifles all over my body and face.

"I had to get three stitches behind by left ear as a result. In detention, sometimes they still beat us and insult us, calling us killers."

A member of the al-Gaddafi security forces, told Amnesty International how he was apprehended by a group of armed men near Az-Zawiya around 19 August as he was bringing supplies to pro-Gaddafi forces. 

He said that he was beaten all over his body and face with the backs of rifles, punched and kicked. He bore visible marks consistent with his testimony. He told Amnesty International that in detention, beatings are less frequent and severe, but take place intermittently depending on the guards on duty.
    Against migrant workers
Detention officials in Az-Zawiya said that about a third of all those detained are "foreign mercenaries" including nationals from Chad, Niger and Sudan.

When Amnesty International delegates spoke to several of the detainees however, they said that they were migrant workers. They said that they had been taken at gunpoint from their homes, work-places and the street on account of their skin colour.

None wore military uniforms. Several told Amnesty International that they feared for their lives as they had been threatened by their captors and several guards and told them that they would be "eliminated or else sentenced to death".

Five relatives from Chad, including a minor, told Amnesty International that on 19 August they were driving to a farm outside of Az-Zawiya to collect some produce when they were stopped by a group of armed men, some in military fatigues.

 The armed men assumed that the five were mercenaries and handed them over to detention officials despite assurances by their Libyan driver that they were migrant workers. 

A 24 year-old man from Niger who has been living and working in Libya for the past five years, told Amnesty International that he was taken from home by three armed men on 20 August.

He said that he was handcuffed, beaten, and put in the boot of the car. He said: "I am not at all involved in this conflict. All I wanted was to make a living. But because of my skin colour, I find myself here, in detention. Who knows what will happen to me now?"