UN to probe Libya's attacks on protesters

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Lisa Mullins: The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for an investigation into the attacks on protestors in Libya. She says they could amount to crimes against humanity Mona Rishmawi is the commission's legal advisor. She's now in Geneva. Could you tell us what prompted the high commissioner to speak out about these crimes now when we have been hearing about so much going on in the region that involves violence against protestors?

Mona Rishmawi: The high commissioner has been very outspoken about all the events in the region and actually three days ago she asked the Libyans to basically respect the rights of the people to demonstrate, the rights of the freedom of assembly. And she said to them they have to listen to the will of their own people. Right now today, what we heard of course, and what happened over the last two days is the opposite. We heard attacks on demonstrators, the use of machine guns, snipers, military planes against the demonstrators. It is reported that what we have is quite an organized attacks against these demonstrators and it worries us a lot because it has ingredients of crimes against humanity.

Mullins: The, that is actually what I was curious about. Whether or not you think that it could be considered a crime against humanity. What would be required on the definition for you to see as evidence for it to meet the definition of a crime against humanity?

Rishmawi: There's an international definition of crimes against humanity that is now embodied in their own statute for the international criminal court. Crimes against humanity are attacks, widespread and systematic attacks against civilian populations. Certain actions, these include for example, killings, torture, disappearances. It also includes detention, arbitrary detention, denial of freedoms. These are for us acts, if they are committed in a widespread and systematic nature against civilian population, they could amount to crimes against humanity.

We are very worried about what is being done in Libya right now by the state and its apparatus and we want to send a very strong signal that the international community is watching and will continue to watch, and we would like to see a very united action in this regard.

Mullins: How clear though is the vision that the international community has? Because if the commission itself has no presence in Libya right now and there is a dire lack of reporters on the ground there, do you really think you have an accurate picture of what's happening that could earn the wrath of the international community and allegations such as crimes against humanity?

Rishmawi: This is why we are calling for an international inquiry. And I don't think we should wait until we know, until the situation is so desperate. Right now the signs are that there are very, very serious things happening. But the most important thing for me is that what is happening right now must stop. If these allegations are accurate, if these reports that many people in different locations are telling us about the planes, about the snipers, about the machine guns, about the attacks, about the rounding up of people from their own houses and so on. If this is happening it has to stop right now because it's very serious.

Mullins: Let me ask you this though, if it's serious now then there are many who would say, and we're gonna hear from some of them later in the program, that it was serious prior to this. That all those things that would meet the definition of crimes against humanity, killing, torture, detention, denial of freedoms, have been going on for just about the amount of time that Muammar Gaddafi has been in office.

Rishmawi: At the end of this episode there is a need to actually go through a, what we call a transitional justice mechanism to see what actually happened and to look for the truth. If there are perpetrators who have committed crimes during this period it's very important that they are brought to trial. But right now it's very important that we stop the killings of people at this stage.

Mullins: I see, I don't think anybody would disagree with that. But for those who say look this has been happening for a long time, where has the high commissioner been?

Rishmawi: The high commissioner has been very systematic; all high commissioners actually have been very systematic in looking at all the situations, at Libya and other situations. But the regime was closed. Being closed doesn't mean you are not accountable. And the time for accountability is coming.

Mullins: Mona Rishmawi is chief of the Rule of Law branch at the office of the Unite Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She spoke to us from Geneva. Thank you very much.

Rishmawi: Thank you.