Lauding Libya success at UN, Obama makes subtle digs at Iraq war

President Obama on Tuesday at the UN praised the international community for intervening in Libya while drawing veiled contrasts between that conflict and the war in Iraq.

Salvatore Di Nolfi/AP
The flag of Libya's Transitional National Council flutters in the driveway of the flags at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday.

When President Obama told a United Nations high-level meeting on Libya Tuesday that the world’s decision to intervene in Libya this year was both courageous and correct, the unstated comparison was to Iraq.

“Libya is a lesson in what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one,” Mr. Obama said in a speech to world leaders gathered to offer support to the North African country’s new transitional government.

Obama, who as a US senator opposed the Iraq war, drew veiled contrasts between the Libya case and the Iraq war, which the Bush administration launched despite intense international opposition.

The US president said that while it is not always right for outside powers to enter into a country’s internal conflict, there are also times when conditions – in particular “horrific” human rights violations by a regime – demand international action.

“I said at the beginning of this [Libya] process, we cannot and should not intervene every time there is an injustice in the world. Yet it’s also true,” Obama added, “that there are times where the world could have and should have summoned the will to prevent the killing of innocents on a horrific scale.”

Lauding the UN Security Council’s March decision to authorize international protection of Libyan civilians threatened by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi – a decision NATO interpreted as a green light for military intervention – Obama said, “This time we, through the United Nations, found the courage and the collective will to act.”

Tuesday’s meeting on Libya followed a decision by the UN General Assembly Friday to turn over Libya’s UN seat to the country’s transitional government. Also on Friday, the Security Council voted to create a special mission to assist the new Libyan leaders in setting up a new government and planning for elections, and to help get the Libyan economy running again.

Libya’s new red, black, and green flag – which replaces the green standard of the Qaddafi era – was flying outside UN headquarters on New York’s East Side as world leaders met inside.

Tuesday’s meeting was something of an international love fest, with the new Libyan leadership thanking the international community for its intervention on the side of the Libyan people, and international leaders praising the Libyans for committing to creating a democratic government respecting all Libyan’s basic human rights.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of Libya’s Transitional National Council, thanked the international community for its role in “the success of the Libyan revolution,” and he committed to creation of a “vibrant” democracy in the place Qaddafi’s authoritarian regime.

Qaddafi chose the occasion to release an audiotape in which he mocked the country’s new transitional government as a “charade.”

Mr. Jalil also claimed that 25,000 Libyans died in the eight-month conflict, but he assured world leaders that any captured loyalists and officials of the Qaddafi regime would receive fair trials.

Despite the mutual back-slapping and smiles all around in New York, the road ahead for Libya is likely to be a steep one, many regional analysts say. Concerns are growing about the role the country’s Islamists are likely to play – both in the transitional government and in any elected government – while some Libyan women worry that a broadly representative government could ironically mean fewer rights than what they enjoyed under Qaddafi.

And with reports surfacing of numerous human rights violations committed by rebel forces in the course of the conflict, some analysts worry that promises of fair treatment of all Libyans may turn out to be hollow.

“As world leaders celebrate the birth of a new Libya … they should make it their priority to help build a state based on respect for human rights and the rule of law,” said Philippe Bolopion, UN director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “They could start by pressing the new authorities to protect African migrants, ensure justice and not revenge, cooperate with the International Criminal Court, and ensure a fair representation for women in decision-making.”

British Foreign Minister William Hague appeared to refer to concerns about post-conflict justice when he called on the new Libyan authorities to commit themselves to the same principles and universal human rights that prompted the international community to intervene in Libya.

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