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Ratcheting Up Pressure on Qaddafi

Interviewee: Tom Malinowski, Washington Director, Human Rights Watch
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria
March 1, 2011

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As part of a growing international campaign condemning the Libyan government's violence against opposition forces, the European Union, the United Nations (UN), and United States have imposed an arms embargo and other sanctions on Libya, including freezing the assets of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and members of his family. A UN Security Council resolution passed Saturday referred Libya to the International Criminal Court for a preliminary investigation. Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, says these steps may move some Qaddafi followers to break ranks if "they feel the tide is turning against their leader." The next step, he says, is for the Obama administration and NATO to discuss potential military options such as a no-fly zone over Libya, if the situation deteriorates. "To the extent that they are seen preparing, the likelihood that they will actually have to do it becomes smaller," he says adding: "Preparations will serve as a deterrent." The most immediate humanitarian concern, he says, is getting assistance to people trying to flee Libya, in particular stranded African migrant workers.

What is the extent of human rights violations taking place in Libya? What is the humanitarian situation on the ground?

There is a great deal we don't know. We have documented around three hundred civilians killed mostly during the fighting last week by the Libyan government and security forces. The way in which we document these deaths is to speak to doctors and hospital officials who can confirm in a credible way that somebody has died and the cause of death. It's a very conservative way of estimating causalities. And of course we can't reach every hospital, so I imagine that the true death toll will be higher.

In terms of human rights violations, shooting of protestors was widespread in the cities of the east before they fell to the opposition. We've had reports about soldiers being executed for refusing to fire on protestors. We've heard the statements from Qaddafi and his sons and others in the Libyan government threatening to go house to house and door to door to wipe out their enemies. It is clear that this violence is being encouraged if not directed by the highest levels of the Libyan government.

Are there other humanitarian concerns, such as people fleeing this violence or needing food aid?

Our most immediate humanitarian concern, setting aside the core human rights issue of protecting people from government-sponsored violence is getting assistance to people who are either fleeing Libya, or trying to flee Libya.

There have been people trying to leave the country, both Libyan nationals fleeing into Tunisia and Egypt, and a large numbers of foreign nationals -- Egyptians, Tunisians, migrant workers from countries like Bangladesh, China, and many African countries -- trying to get out.

Our most immediate humanitarian concern, setting aside the core human rights issue of protecting people from government-sponsored violence, is getting assistance to people who are either fleeing Libya, or trying to flee Libya, particularly African migrants who seem to be in grave danger there and are not getting any assistance. It's very important that, of course, the borders remain open in Tunisia and Egypt, and [that Egypt and Tunisia] continue to provide help and allow the international community to provide help to people who are seeking refuge there. I also hope that the United States and others in the international community will start to provide more direct assistance in those parts of the country that have fallen under the control of the opposition, particularily to these very vulnerable migrant populations.

The international community has condemned the violence inside Libya, and the EU, the UN, and the United States have all imposed sanctions. But some analysts say these steps won't have much effect on the short term situation. What is your view?

There needs to be discussion about the potential military options should the situation continue to deteroriate.

They do have an important cumulative effect. In a situation like this, what happens is not so much up to the decisions that Qaddafi makes, but it's up to the people who have to decide whether or not to follow Qaddafi's orders. In other words, Libya's fate really isn't in Qaddafi's hands. It's in the hands of people around him. Some of whom may be on the fence, some of whom are clearly going to be making calculations on a daily, if not hourly, basis about where this is going and where their personal interest lay. The more they feel the tide is turning against their leader, the more likely they are to refuse to follow him down into the abyss. They aren't going to want to be on the losing side.

The internal defections [inside Libya], combined with these strong steps that the United States and the UN Security Council have taken does contribute to a sense among Libyans who may still be on the fence, that Qaddafi's side is going to be the losing side.

Are you satisfied then with the steps the international community has taken so far?

At this stage, the Obama administration has truly done everything that we were asking it to do. The crises are far from over and we will certainly be asking for more in the coming days, but we've seen a fairly extraordinary effort for the last two to three days in particular. The European Union is mostly following suit. We do have one concern with the EU sanctions not being quite as tough as the U.S. sanctions. The EU has not yet apparently frozen the assets of the Libyan state, the Central Bank, [and] Libya's sovereign wealth fund, in which the regime places most of the country's oil revenues. They have frozen the accounts belonging to individual members of the regime, like Qaddafi, but not of the Libyan state itself. So we are pushing the European Union to take that additional step. The Obama administration has taken that step.

What else do you think the international community can do to improve the situation and prevent further violence and casualties in the short term?

There needs to be discussion about the potential military options should the situation continue to deteroriate. If Qaddafi manages somehow to regroup in Tripoli -- and if he then tries to retake the parts of the country that the opposition now controls, for example Benghazi -- there could well be a bloodbath far greater than anything we have seen so far. If Qaddafi were to retake Benghazi -- based on his past encounters and behavior -- a large number of people would simply be lined up and shot. It would be wise for the United States and NATO to begin planning now for options such as a no-fly zone to prevent Qaddafi's forces from striking back at civilians in those areas should that prove necessary. To the extent that they are seen preparing, the likeliood that they will actually have to do it becomes smaller. Preparations will serve as a deterrent.

Are there concerns in other places in the Middle East where protests are ongoing like Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, Oman, and so on?

Every country is at a slightly different stage. I'm still quite optimistic about Egypt, mostly because the people of the country came together in such an extraordinarily powerful way that the Egyptian military would be very foolish to now go back on the promises that it made, but we do have to be very, very watchful there.

The internal defections [inside Libya], combined with these strong steps that the United States and the UN Security Council have taken does contribute to a sense among Libyans who may still be on the fence, that Qaddafi's side is going to be the losing side.

In Bahrain, the government pulled back from its initial violent attacks against protestors, but it has not yet showed itself to be committed to a genuine substantive process of political reform. The patience of the people who were protesting is not unlimited. There does need to be a very serious effort in Bahrain to reform the political system so that it is more open to the Shia majority and to people who want greater democratic freedoms. Were that to happen, Bahrain would be a very positive model for the rest of the world in contrast to Libya and Egypt. It would show that the authorities of a country, in this case the royal family, can survive a transition to democracy so long as they are willing to listen to their people and to reform their system. Whereas those rulers who refuse to do that and employ violence instead are removed as happened to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and likely to Qaddafi. That's an argument we'd like to be able to make to other authoritarian governments around the world. That they should follow the Bahrain sample, rather than the Egyptian or Libyan example. For the argument to be possible, the Bahrain example has to work and that has not yet happened.

We've seen a lot of violence in Yemen, which we are all concerned about. We are following Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and of course Iran, which is in a special category.

What are your recommendations for the international community to address the human rights situation going forward both in the short and the long term?

The international community should be reflective about its own role in the region for the last several decades. From the point of view of the United States for example, the closest identification with repressive governments in the region served U.S. interests in the long term very well. I hope some lessons are drawn from that. It's extremely important to support the transition in Egypt, which remains the most important and influential country in the Arab world. That means maintaining pressure on the Egyptian military to keep its promises to move in a responsible way towards a genuine democratic transition with reelections, lifting the emergency law, reforming the security apparatus and bringing it under civilian control. At the same time, providing Egypt with the assistance and support that it will need to make that transition effectively.

In Libya, we have to deal with the immediate crises. A new government in Libya will also need a lot of support from the international community to be successful. This is by far the most important issue in the Middle East, and most Middle East policy makers [in the United States] never imagined that promoting and supporting democratic transformations in the region would be America's number one interest in the region and their central preoccupation this year. And they should be reflective about why they didn't pay as much attention to these issues in the past.

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