Libya: US closes embassy in Tripoli, sanctions loom

Libya death toll could be in the thousands. The international community is responding in several ways, including at a meeting Friday of the UN Human Rights Council, which set up a commission of inquiry into the violence.

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters
A US embassy official accompanies passengers of the US chartered ferry Maria Dolores after they arrived in Valletta's Grand Harbour Friday. The ferry arrived at the port on Friday, carrying hundreds of Americans and other evacuees from Tripoli.

As international pressure continued to build against the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the country’s delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva dramatically switched sides Friday, saying, “We represent only the Libyan people.”

Members of the UN’s much-maligned human rights body, meeting in an emergency session on Libya, condemned the Libyan government’s crackdown against its own citizens and set up a commission of inquiry into the state-sponsored violence over the past 10 days. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed.

Also on Friday, the United States announced the suspension of its embassy operations in Libya. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a statement that “given current security conditions” and an “inability to guarantee fully the safety and security of our diplomatic personnel in the country,” the US Embassy in Tripoli was closed.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said America is moving forward on imposing unilateral sanctions on the Libyan regime. The US would consult with European and other partners on reaching agreement on a set of international sanctions, he added.

President Obama will meet Monday in Washington with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to confer on international measures.

In Geneva, the Human Rights Council also voted to suspend Libya’s membership in the 47-seat body.

The Libyan delegation’s decision to switch sides elicited applause from the assembled council. Earlier Friday, Libya’s delegation to the Arab League in Cairo said that it, too, was cutting ties to the Qaddafi regime and “join[ing] our people in their legitimate demands for change and the establishment of a democratic system.”

The UN Security Council in New York was also expected to take up the Libyan crisis for the second time this week Friday. And the European Union settled on a package of sanctions to impose on Libya, with formal adoption of the measures expected next week.

European countries are also seeking a meeting of the UN General Assembly next week to consider a further step against Libya in the Human Rights Council – ejection.

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will attend a regular meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva and will consult with US allies and partners about the international community’s path forward on Libya.

The council’s vote Friday to launch a formal investigation into the Libyan government’s violence came after the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, called for the council to set up an independent panel to shed light on the abuses and to hold the perpetrators responsible. To date, reports of substantial loss of life have come mostly from anecdotal evidence.

The vote to establish such an intrusive investigative body was a surprise to some Western diplomats, since the council is dominated numerically by African and Asian countries that in the past have taken a dim view of such outside intervention in a country’s internal affairs.

Concerns about the prospects at this point for winning broad international support for punitive measures are cited by some experts as one reason that the Obama administration has been perceived as lagging in efforts to levy sanctions on Libya. China and perhaps even Russia are unlikely to go along with a sanctions resolution in the Security Council so soon, these experts say, and the US may have decided it’s best to avoid a show of international disunity on Libya.

China and Russia expressed reluctance at the Security Council session on Libya earlier this week to act without more complete information from the ground. Mr. Ban, the UN secretary-general, was expected to provide a report on the violence to the Security Council session Friday.

Mr. Obama said in a statement Wednesday that his administration is considering a wide range of possible measures against Libya. In addition to economic sanctions, those were said to include freezing of assets and declaration of a no-fly zone over parts of Libya (as was declared by the UN for parts of Iraq after the Gulf War).

Human rights organizations and intellectuals from across Arab countries were preparing to issue a demand Saturday that the Security Council and other multilateral organizations, including the African Union, at least prepare plans for a no-fly zone.

With the EU leading the way, the international community seemed almost certain to approve some form of sanctions on Libya. But that prospect raises questions about the effectiveness of such measures.

“We have to remember that in the ’80s and ’90s, Libya was under sanctions, and the regime thrived and consolidated its hold on society,” says Frederic Wehrey, a senior Middle East policy analyst with the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

“In terms of affecting the hard-liners, the impact is likely to be negligible,” says Mr. Wehrey, who just returned from Libya.

Still, countries will want to demonstrate that they are doing something, especially as they come under increasing pressure from rights groups and the Libyan diaspora to act.

As one example of that, a coalition of antigenocide groups and student activists was planning to demonstrate outside the State Department Friday afternoon, to let Secretary Clinton know they want US action as she prepares to travel to Geneva.

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