Libyans wait in line to see the corpse of Muammar Gaddafi in a meat container in Misrata October 24, 2011. Libyans filed past Muammar Gaddafi’s decomposing body for a fourth day on Monday, keen to see for themselves that the fallen strongman was dead, while talks dragged on among emerging local factions over disposing of the corpse.
It matters how Moammar Gaddafi died because the challenge for Libya now is to turn from murderous tyranny toward a democracy that respects the rule of law and human rights. That “arc of history” bending “toward justice” just became more difficult for Libya because of the serious questions that have emerged about exactly how Gaddafi died.
On Friday, cell phone videos and photos began to circulate that appear to show Gaddafi injured but clearly alive after his capture, and then dead after a group of insurgent fighters surrounded him. Thus, the United Nations and human rights groups have appropriately started to call for an investigation into the death of Gaddafi as a war crime.
“If you take these two videos together, they are rather disturbing because you see someone who has been captured alive and then you see the same person dead,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told Reuters Television.
The term “humanitarian” in the concept of the use of force to prevent genocide, as the Responsibility to Protect doctrine argues, refers to the moral justification for the action. Force is still force in such a concept, and war will still be war in such an action; lethal violence is bound to occur. Thus, as in the conduct of any war, including one in a coalition action justified for humanitarian purposes, if such use of force includes war crimes, they need to be investigated.
Once Gaddafi became a prisoner, the Geneva Conventions that prohibit mistreatment of prisoners of war, including torture and murder, applied.
One way or the other, the question of how Gaddafi died needs to be fully resolved, through an open investigation. The establishment of the rule of law in Libya, a crucial step toward becoming a more just and democratic society, depends on this. For the Libyan people, a Gaddafi captured and brought to trial to be held responsible for his many alleged crimes, including accusations of torture and murder of others, would have been an important step on this road to a more open, accountable civil society. But that cannot happen. Gaddafi died. The question now is, ‘how?’
That question must be answered, and an open investigation into Gaddafi’s death in Libya can still be a step toward the establishment of the rule of law. This is the position articulated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said Sunday, “From my perspective, such an investigation would be very important to establish accountability, rule of law and pave the way for the inclusive democratic future that the Libyans tell me that they want.”
But even with an open investigation, which is by no means certain, damage has been done. The cell phone videos and pictures of Gaddafi alive and bloodied, and then dead, apparently after being in a crowd, are surely creating another narrative. The risk from these images is that they could turn Gaddafi into a martyr for those who wish to continue an insurgency. The manner of his capture and death can thus become a justification for revenge.
As the United States has learned, the photos of the torture of Iraqi prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison remain on the web indefinitely. Indeed, new and very graphic (viewer discretion advised) photos have been released more recently and these continue to fuel a revenge narrative against the United States.
The Libyan people may very well also find that the videos and photos of the death of Moammar Gaddafi circulating on the web, whatever their correct interpretation, will create a renewed cycle of violence, making it even harder to undo the wrongs of the decades of Gaddafi’s tyranny. Justice is, for this reason, not an historical absolute, nor can it be subject to an “ends justify the means” rationale, even when those “ends” are ending tyranny and bringing about a more just, democratic society.
Despite all those disturbing realities, however, there is always the possibility of creating more justice and less tyranny. History did not end today. What the Libyans must do is forthrightly confront the reality of violence and revenge, not just in the death of Gaddafi but also in their nation for the last four decades, and systematically create a different future by acting in a different way, the way of respect for human rights and justice.
Therefore, the most important point going forward, as Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch contends, is the National Transitional Council in Libya making good on its pledge to “respect international human rights standards.” Gaddafi “didn’t rule alone, and it is vital that high-level officials who survived the conflict be investigated and, if credibly accused, be given a fair trial for their roles in the most serious crimes.” These trials can and must take place, hopefully in the near future.
But now, the first step in the creation of the new Libya, and what will set the stage for respect for human rights and the rule of law in the new nation, needs to be a full and open investigation into how Gaddafi died.