Justice or expediency: what to do with Gaddafi

If you follow this blog you’ll already know that I don’t believe moral judgement has much to do with our recent actions in Libya. Whatever the truth about that, the unfolding situation is now throwing up moral dilemmas of a different kind. Moussa Koussa has arrived in Britain, apparently as a defector from the Gaddafi régime. A few days ago a Nato spokesman accepted that if the rebel forces began to endanger civilians then they might equally become Nato targets since UN resolution 1973 does not discriminate between one set of civilians and another: it simply provides for any action necessary to protect civilians. Now there is discussion about arming the rebels in order to prevent a prolonged stalemate in which many civilians would be likely to die.

Muammar al Gaddafi (Photo by Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images Europe)

Some of these issues are in some sense issues of military tactics. Which military actions will safeguard more civilians rather than fewer? They arise from the Realpolitik of getting UN agreement on a resolution that tries to sit on the fence between the Colonel and his eastern citizens. The limits to the UN mandate prevent decisive military action, and thus open up all these grey areas, with the coalition forces acting as some kind of turbo-powered referee imposing the rules of the game and studiously trying to stay neutral between the teams. Thus are demonstrated the constraints on trying to use the UN as an international police force, pretending to be above national interest and operating on some more rarefied moral plane. That is not necessarily to say that the attempt is pointless or ignoble, but it is to wonder about its potential to be effective.

So much for the moral dilemmas of the military action. But they are not the only ones. Moussa Koussa’s arrival in Britain opens up others. Should he be welcomed and perhaps rewarded for his decision to quit the Gaddafi régime? What about those past crimes of the Libyan government such as Lockerbie? Should he face investigation of what he might know about that matter? Should he be given immunity? If he’s not, will that deter other potential defectors? Whilst it is clear that Koussa is quitting, there have apparently been other contacts with Gaddafi régime representatives who might be trying to negotiate some kind of way out for the Libyan leader. Should they be entertained? Can it be right to allow despots such as Gaddafi to avoid prosecution at the International Criminal Court if in so doing a prolonged civil war, in which there would be thousands of innocent victims, could be avoided?

It’s easy to argue that justice is what counts. That any opportunity for the guilty to get away with their crimes must be prevented. Of course that sounds right. Yet it seems to imply a moral absolutism that does not sit comfortably with all the moral relativism that surrounds every other aspect of the current Libyan adventure. William Hague may be saying publicly that the only message the British government has for the Libyan régime is that Gaddafi must go. Not that this is exactly consistent with the UN mandate and with President Obama’s protestations that this is only about protecting civilians and not about régime change. As I argued on this blog in the post cited earlier, the whole edifice on which rests the decision to intervene in Libya, but not in innumerable other atrocious and murderous situations, is itself shot through with moral double-speak and political and economic calculation masquerading as humanitarian concern.

So it seems that when the moral magnifying glass is on nation states and governments, we accept that there are always shades of grey. When, by contrast, we can fix that glass on an identifiable individual, especially one we can easily demonise, then everything is suddenly black and white. I hold no brief for Gaddafi who sounds every bit as loathsome as it is possible to imagine: but equally I would not want to see a single Libyan citizen sacrificed on the altar of moral purity and justice being seen to be done. If Gaddafi can be removed from the morass he’s created in his country (with quite a bit of help from us, don’t forget) more quickly without an appearance at the ICC, so be it.

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