How ICC warrants could change NATO strikes in Libya

NATO airstrikes today hit two government buildings in Tripoli, including the Interior Ministry.

Darko Bandic/AP
In this photo taken on a government organized tour, a Libyan soldier stands in front of an official building following an airstrike in Tripoli, Libya, early Tuesday, May 17.

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The potential that the International Criminal Court (ICC) could issue an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is unlikely to marginalize him at home. But such a warrant could give NATO more latitude to target the dictator directly.

So far, NATO airstrikes have focused on military targets – this morning they hit two government buildings in Tripoli, including the Interior Ministry. However, the head of Britain's military said on Sunday that NATO needed authorization to also strike infrastructure targets. There is speculation that the ICC warrants could justify NATO efforts to target Qaddafi, rather than simply to "protect Libyan civilians under threat of attack."

The ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, announced yesterday that he is seeking warrants for the arrest of Mr. Qaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief for "crimes against humanity." According to the Associated Press, "the legal action has been seen in Libya as giving NATO more justification to go after him."

The stated goal is to isolate Qaddafi and his close associates, but ICC warrants are only effective if the accused individuals venture into a country that recognizes the court's jurisdiction. A wide range of countries do not recognize the its jurisdiction, however, including the US and many African and Middle Eastern nations – where Qaddafi is most likely to travel.

A person accused by the ICC can still lead a country – there has been a warrant out for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir since 2009. He has continued governing and sometimes travels to other countries that will not turn him over to the court.

The Libyan government recognizes that the warrant only undermines Qaddafi's rule as much as he lets it, according to the Tripoli Post.

Claiming that the ICC was a “baby of the European Union designed for African politicians and leaders,” and that its practices were “questionable,” Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Kaim said Libya does not recognize the court’s ... jurisdiction. He said that like most African countries and the United States, Libya ... would ignore any such announcement.

James Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, is one of many arguing that the ICC warrants will make Qaddafi more obstinate. Critics also say the warrants remove an enticing carrot that diplomats could extend to Qaddafi in an effort to get him to step down: exile with immunity.

… Given that al-Bashir continues to flout his ICC indictment, Gadhafi probably isn’t worrying that Interpol will swoop in and read him his Miranda rights.

That does not mean a warrant for Gadhafi’s arrest would be without consequence. It would give him additional reason to dig in his heels. With the threat of arrest and trial in The Hague hanging over his head, he knows he will not have the option given dictators of old – going into exile to Paris (Baby Doc Duvalier) or retreat to Saudi Arabi (Idi Amin).

Meanwhile, Russia, which abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote on foreign intervention in Libya and has since publicly criticized intervention, is hosting envoys of Qaddafi's government in Moscow on Tuesday and plans to host representatives of the rebel government soon. A Russian official said the goal is to bring an "end to the bloodshed" in Libya, Bloomberg reported. However, Libya's rebels appear ambivalent about Russia's peacemaking efforts.

“There is no Russian initiative,” said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, the vice president of the rebel government, according to Bloomberg. “If we think of going to Russia, it will be to explain the situation and to change the Russian position regarding the Feb. 17 revolution.”

After today's NATO strikes, the Libyan government accused NATO of targeting the building because it held files related to corruption trials against Libyan rebel leaders, whose international support is growing. But the regime also repeated its offer of a cease-fire and said it likely will release four journalists being held in Tripoli soon, possibly as early as this afternoon, the AP reported.

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