Libya's Qaddafi charged with war crimes: a help or hindrance to NATO?

International Criminal Court on Monday indicted Libya's Qaddafi on charges of crimes against humanity. Human rights groups cheer, but others say the move will cause him to dig in even more.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters
Libyan women celebrate with a Kingdom of Libya flag after receiving news of an arrest warrant issued against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi at the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya, on June 27. The International Criminal Court court approved warrants for Qaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi on charges of crimes against humanity.

International human rights advocates are hailing the International Criminal Court’s indictment Monday of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi on charges of crimes against humanity. But the order for Colonel Qaddafi’s arrest is not likely to alter the stalemate in which the NATO-led and US-backed military mission finds itself, some regional experts say.

If anything, the international court’s action may result in an even more drawn-out Libyan conflict. It may serve to reinforce Qaddafi’s determination to outfox NATO warplanes and his resistance to any diplomatic solution entailing his departure from Libya, because he could perceive that giving up is now tantamount to arrest.

“If you were Qaddafi, would this indictment make you more inclined to leave the country or negotiate a peaceful solution, or less inclined?” says Steven Groves, an expert in human rights and international institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “This is likely to make him more resolved to stick it out.”

That inclination is not unique to the Libyan leader, who has seemed to delight in his ability to dodge NATO’s bombing raids for months, adds Mr. Groves. “Heads of state are less inclined to consider a negotiated settlement, once they’re in an armed conflict like this, if they have an international indictment hanging over their head.”

The International Criminal Court (ICC), located in The Hague, announced the arrest warrants for Qaddafi and one of his sons, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, on charges of ordering and organizing the arrest, imprisonment, and killing of hundreds of civilians in the initial days of the uprising against the Qaddafi regime. Also indicted was Qaddafi’s intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Sanoussi.

The international organization Human Rights Watch praised the ICC’s actions, saying the indictments would reinforce the message that abusive leaders can no longer expect to act above the law and violate internationally recognized rights with impunity.

At the same time, specialists with the group rejected the notion that the ICC’s actions might actually prolong Libya’s conflict by making Qaddafi more determined to stick it out.

“Muammar Qaddafi already made it clear he intended to stay until the bitter end before the ICC process was set in motion, and his son’s February vow to ‘live and die in Libya’ speaks for itself,” said Richard Dicker, Human Rights Watch’s international justice director, in a statement. “It beggars belief that a dictator who has gripped power for over 40 years would be frozen in place by this arrest warrant.”

The organization Amnesty International says its own research in Libya produced evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including indiscriminate use of rocket fire on residential areas of the port city of Misurata. Amnesty says a failure by the ICC to prosecute Libya’s leadership would send a “disturbing message” of impunity to the rest of the world.

Critics of rights groups’ reasoning and of the international court’s indictment say it is just as reasonable to argue that Qaddafi will be hardened in his resolve as it is to say that the Libya indictments will act as a message to the world’s dictators.

Some US officials have acknowledged privately that an indictment of Qaddafi would very likely complicate the diplomatic environment and render more remote a solution that includes Qaddafi departing for another country. But there were no suggestions that the US leaned on the ICC prosecutors to hold off on the indictments.

Some NATO allies may see in the ICC indictments a boost for the military mission's moral authority, especially as the mission, once expected to be quick, drags on. There is also the risk, some experts say, that the indictments will reinforce those who suggest that the West is overstepping its bounds with its intervention in Libya.

The indictments were received in mixed fashion in Libya. While the opposition capital of Benghazi celebrated with gunfire and parades of honking cars, officials in Tripoli announced that Qaddafi is in “high spirits” and has no intention of leaving the country.

The ICC’s action also revived debate over the independence of the international court.

Heritage’s Groves says it would be “naive” to think that the ICC prosecutors took their action without considering the impact on the ground.

“Just like any prosecutor sitting in New York or Chicago or Green Bay, Wis., those at the ICC have discretion over whether they are going to file an indictment and when,” he says. “That is one of the problems with a standing international criminal court and an independent prosecutor.”

Others say the ICC must act independently of other international pressures if it is to fulfill its mandate to bring to justice the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

“As a judicial undertaking, the court’s work is distinct from the military and diplomatic initiatives unfolding in Libya,” says Mr. Dicker of Human Rights Watch. “Justice, to be credible, must run its independent course.”

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