By W.Scott Thompson
IN all of the writings about the laws of war, except among pacifists who deem any violence illegal, there’s some agreement that going to war is legal, in international law, if it’s self-defence, if a country is blatantly faced by destruction, and if the response or attack is proportionate to the risk or offense. That’s why so many thought the American attack on Iraq in 2003 was wrong. It wasn’t just stupid: it was disproportionate to the risk the United States faced from small Iraq and its supposed (and, as it turned out, non-existent) weapons of mass destruction.
Let’s apply the laws of nations to the internal affairs of a country, where supposedly higher standards apply. No doubt many Marsh Arabs, related to those Saddam Hussein had gassed, would have grabbed at the chance to wring the dictator’s neck and drag him through town the way Soldiers of Libya (no longer rebels) did to their defeated four-decade dictator. In the case of Iraq, once the American-British forces realised they were in for a far greater struggle than they’d bargained on, and knowing that a good fourth of the country, Saddam’s Sunni brethren, to some extent still identified with him, they knew they must go through the forms of legality when they pulled him out of the fetid well. He was tried, he played every game in town, and was lawfully hanged.
The Ceausescu ruling couple in Romania were seized on Christmas Day, given a trial for a few minutes, then executed by firing squad. In that case, the people they’d terrorised for many years acted on the assumption, or fear, that there still might be life in his puppets (and one-time masters in Moscow) enough to keep the couple in power. No one thought it wrongful.
The big case is still the Nazis. One faction thought the obvious solution at the war’s end was to line up the surviving thugs and summarily execute them.
But there, the allies themselves were on trial. They’d fought the biggest war in history in the name of justice, and so went through the long Nuremberg trials, which set international legal precedents for generations to come — even though the outcome was foreordained. Fifty million people had died through the war Hitler had set in motion, and it would have been dreadful to use Hitler’s methods against the losers.
So, what’s different about Muammar Gaddafi? It’s water over the dam, but the principles need to be established. Yes, it would have been more internationally legal to cuff him and whisk him off to the Netherlands and spend a couple of years letting him rant and rave in a glass cage, with an inevitable result.
He’d be found guilty of crimes against humanity, and locked up for life. And the people of Libya would have a lingering sense of unfinished business.
And here comes proportionality. I doubt there were a thousand people who would have supported him, and those only from their fear or debts to him. The relatives of the tens of thousands of people killed after he knew he’d lost the fight, but refused to give in, would probably be the hardest to convince that the soldiers were wrong to kill him coming out of the drain pipe where he was almost comically hiding. His home town of Sirte certainly got a lesson in his madness, as he used them as his shield to die a “hero”. No one in the populous east would have done other than what had happened.
The rebellion of 2011 was long overdue, and people have a right to defend themselves against cruelty and inhumanity, as in international law. Anyone knowledgeable of his system of rule — the ruthlessness, slyness and extortion of a whole country — can understand that the soldiers who executed him had no choice. One might say they were enraged. But apparently, so was everybody. He was skilled in the arts of perpetuating a dictatorship over a very poor country, that might have been moderately developed by now with its oil riches, and he had to be got rid of as quickly as possible.
As long as he was alive, a country most of whose population was born after he came to power would live in fear until they saw the raving man begging for life, and then done with.
The case of his son, now negotiating his surrender, is different. Saif al-Islam was no doubt complicit in his father’s crimes, but here there is time and appropriateness for the London School of Economics graduate to answer to history.
A New Yorker article gives amazing detail of the impunity which all the family enjoyed. Hannibal and his wife Aline were sadists. An Ethiopian maid is still being treated for 4th-degree burns from boiling water Aline threw at her. There’s an emerging school of law that argues that victims should be part of the judicial system, as part of their own reparation, and must be consulted about the sentencing. I wonder what Shweyga the maid would say about Aline, now in exile in Algeria. All of the children need to face justice so that the world’s dictators at least know what might lie ahead.
As for the father, I’m reminded of that unforgettable line, Charles Laughton’s best ever, in the original 1957 version of the film Witness for the Prosecution. At the incredible end, Marlene Dietrich kills her dubious husband in the courtroom on finding out how he has repaid her artful deception that saved his life, as his new lover comes to grab him away for their long-planned holiday.
There are mutterings all around the marvelous Marlene, now that she’d have to stand trial for murder, but Laughton says, “She didn’t murder him, she executed him”. The heartless husband got what he deserved.
Thus, did the courageous soldiers of the new Libya execute the most ghastly leader since Uganda’s Idi Amin, who reputedly ate the innards of enemies after crushing their skulls on an anvil — yet was allowed to die peacefully in Saudi Arabia.
The writer is emeritus professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, United States