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U.N. Condemns Libya but Fails to Probe Civilian Killings

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 22 2011 (IPS) - If besieged Libyan leader Muammar el-Gaddafi survives the widespread revolt in his turmoil-plagued country, will he be the second sitting head of state to be charged or indicted for war crimes?

The killings of over 200 civilian protestors in Libya over the last seven days have triggered strong condemnation not only by the United Nations but also by human rights groups and governments worldwide.

“I have seen very disturbing and shocking scenes, where Libyan authorities have been firing at demonstrators from warplanes and helicopters,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon told reporters.

“This is unacceptable. This must stop immediately. This is a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” he said.

Still, the 15-member Security Council, after hours of consultations behind closed doors, issued a press statement Tuesday condemning the violence against civilians but failed to take any concrete action.

Brazilian Ambassador Maria Luiza Viotti, current Council chair, described the statement as “a strong message” which also calls for accountability for the violence unleashed against civilians.

Asked why there was no call for an international investigation into the violence, she said: “That will be subject to further discussion.”

According to diplomatic sources, at least one member insisted that language calling for an independent investigation be removed from the statement.

Human rights groups quickly denounced the Council’s timidity. “Libya’s deadly actions to date require a much stronger response from the Security Council if it is to live up to its often-repeated pledges to protect civilians,” said Philippe Bolopion, U.N. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “At minimum, the Security Council should act now to impose a travel ban and an asset freeze on senior Libyan officials and military commanders found to be responsible for grave human rights violations.”

“The Council also should immediately impose an arms embargo on Libya, and support U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s call for an investigation into what she has described as ‘widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population [that] may amount to crimes against humanity’,” he added.

On Monday, Ban had a 40-minute phone conversation with the Libyan leader in which he told Gaddafi to abandon his violent response to demonstrations.

Asked to characterise the conversation, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters Tuesday that Ban’s message to Gaddafi was “abundantly clear”: stop violence against demonstrators, respect their human rights and heed their aspirations.

According to human rights groups, the killings of civilians – by military forces and presumably by mercenaries hired by the Libyan government – constitute crimes against humanity, with Gaddafi and his military chiefs liable for prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The only sitting head of state indicted for war crimes so far is Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. But he continues to evade the law and also escape an outstanding international warrant for his arrest, making a mockery of the ICC.

Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, told IPS it was obvious the killings of civilians in Libya constitute “war crimes”.

Killing protestors may well be a crime against humanity and subject to ICC jurisdiction upon a referral by the U.N. Security Council, he pointed out.

“It is appalling. Unfortunately, the Security Council and particularly the United States have little credibility to focus their wrath on Libya,” said Ratner.

The Security Council, in large part, has lost its credibility because of the U.S. refusal to make such a referral when the Israelis slaughtered Palestinians in Gaza, he added.

“Why Libya now and not Israel in 2009?” asked Ratner. Nor was the United States sanctioned for initiating an aggressive war against Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands.

“Hypocrisy apparently rules the day. If Libyans are sent to the ICC, Israelis, Americans and others must be as well,” he declared.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe warned: “The (security) situation is deteriorating – and can get worse.”

Meanwhile, in a rambling statement on Libyan TV, a defiant Gaddafi said he was prepared to continue to defend his tottering 41-year-old authoritarian regime.

“I am a fighter… I will die as a martyr at the end,” he said while calling upon Libyans to get out of their homes and attack the protestors.

He dismissed the protestors as misguided youths who were on drugs and paid to demonstrate against his regime.

Asked for his response, Pascoe said “inciting the population is a dangerous thing and threats and retaliation in the speech are of very serious concern.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said “the nature and scope of the human rights violations taking place in several countries in the region, in response to those who are largely demonstrating peacefully for their fundamental human rights and freedoms, is alarming.”

She came out strongly against the use of live ammunition against peaceful protestors in Libya, the use of electric tasers and batons in Yemen, and the use of military-grade shotguns in Bahrain.

“The Middle East and North Africa region is boiling with anger. At the root of this anger is decades of neglect of people’s aspirations to realise not only civil and political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights,” she said.

“There is an urgent need for legal, economic and political reforms,” Pillay added.

The protests against Gaddafi have also spread from the streets of Libya to the country’s overseas diplomatic missions, with several diplomats and ambassadors in the United States, France, India and the United Nations either quitting their jobs or denouncing the Libyan leader.

In a statement released Tuesday, Amnesty International called on the Security Council and the Arab League to “launch an immediate mission to Libya to investigate events that have left hundreds of protestors dead”.

The call for the investigation, the statement said, could lead to prosecutions at the ICC on charges of war crimes.

“The international community must immediately make it clear to all those in the Libyan government, military and security apparatus that they and those carrying out their orders will be held to account for crimes under international law, such as those now being reported,” said AI’s Secretary-General Salil Shetty.

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