NATO drags its feet on war crimes allegations in Libya

A rebel mans an anti-aircraft gun in Ras Lanuf, Libya

Canada’s  government should lobby its NATO allies to hold a full investigation into allegations of civilian deaths during its yearlong bombing campaign in support of Libyan rebel’s successful toppling of the  Gaddafi clan and the corrupt regime that kept them in power for over 40 years.

This may be a tad hypocritical of me.  You see, I supported the humanitarian intervention in that country, back when it seemed evident that Gaddafi would stop at nothing in order to quell the legitimate protests of his people (including preparing to carry out a civilian blood bath in the city of Benghazi!). Most Libyans still agree that the military strikes, as damaging  as they may have been, were justified on the grounds that they saved more innocent lives than they killed. Even a spokesman for Human Rights Watch (one of the non-governmental organizations calling for an investigation into the alleged war crimes) admits that the number of casualties (72 people) is relatively small, for a military operation of this size.

Presumably, this is why the Libyan government (such as it is) has yet to appeal to NATO for an inquiry into the deaths.
But the international human rights lawyer in me says that we have an obligation, moral and legal, to get to the bottom of this matter, and to do it now, so the victims of these errant bombs, if they can be established, may receive compensation and some measure of justice in this tragic affair.

First the legal case: international humanitarian law ( which used to known as the laws of war, during a less politically correct by gone era) clearly hold States responsible for their actions during wartime. Among other things, civilian deaths, even if accidental, are strictly forbidden (see Geneva Conventions, for more info). Especially if, as is claimed by the NGOs, they were caused by air strikes on targets with no military or strategic value.

It’s clear that, despite pressure from the international human rights community (Amnesty International, HRW, etc.), NATO is determined to drag its feet on this question. As a result, NATO flack Oana Lungescu made a slightly contradictory statement the other day, which attempted to nip the case against NATO in the bud, by claiming that, on the one hand, no civilians had been killed by NATO.

On the other hand, she then implied that even if they had, it was impossible to avoid such tragedies entirely in a complex military campaign and that , in any case, all “targets struck by NATO were legitimate targets.” This sounds an awful lot like hedging one’s bets, to my mind. Incidentally, as the author of the HRW report, Fred Abrahams, pointed out, NATO’s has no such qualms about investigating and compensating alleged civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Above all, there is a powerful moral argument for a NATO investigation into this. If NATO wants to maintain the moral high ground and continue to claim that they only use military force with the utmost regard for minimizing collateral damage (for lack of a better term), then they should show more accountability to the people of Libya, in this case. There is no better way, that I can think of, for the new government and its allies to demonstrate a commitment to the principle of the rule of law and, in so doing, help heal the national wounds that continue to divide Libya and distance themselves from the criminality of the ancien régime.

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