Libyan refugees flee violence in their country and seek a safe place at a United Nations displacement camp on March 11, 2011 in Ras Jdir, Tunisia. Men, women and children have descended on Tunisia, creating a humanitarian crisis in the country which itself has only recently toppled its former president in an uprising.
Credit: Dan Kitwood

NOTRE DAME, Indiana — There may still be time for the international community to save thousands of lives and salvage a positive outcome before further tragedy unfolds in Libya.

For this to happen, Britain, France, the United States and the rest of the international community should stop trying to do the impossible and instead focus on what might be doable. Any act of war against Libya, such as establishing a no-fly zone, cannot obtain the necessary international approval. Even the Libyan rebels do not agree that external military intervention would be good for the future of their movement.

What would be politically feasible, as well as militarily and morally desirable?

The answer can be found in recognizing that the international community and the Libyan protesters are stymied because, after some early successes for the protesters, nearly all parties have been thinking in traditional military terms of attacking Gaddafi’s forces and holding territory. They have overlooked how to use high moral ground to defeat an adversary in Tripoli who is militarily much stronger than them.

To fight Gaddafi using his strongest suit is a huge mistake. Gaddafi seems instinctively to recognize that he is justified in using violence when his opponents do. That is why he keeps labeling them Al Qaeda; everyone knows Al Qaeda is viciously violent. Both the rebels and the international community need to move toward the high moral and legal ground that the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia successfully occupied.

To be sure, Gaddafi and his entourage are not the same foes that the protesters confronted in Egypt and Tunisia, but one condition is similar in all three cases. If protesters had used violence in Egypt and Tunisia, the military and security forces of the dictators would have felt fully justified in mowing them down, as has happened in Libya.

Recall that the dictators in Egypt and Tunisia were quite willing to use violence. Indeed they had repeatedly done so with arbitrary arrests, imprisonments, torture and deaths in the past. Hundreds were killed in Cairo. The dictators of Egypt and Tunisia did not fall because they were compassionate or were overwhelmed militarily by protesters; they fell because they were disobeyed by their own officials.

The most significant difference between Libya, on the one hand, and Egypt and Tunisia, on the other, is that not enough military and security people in Libya have refused to follow orders to kill unarmed civilians, although some have done so.

Rather than debate dubious acts of war, the U.N. Security Council should establish a humanitarian corridor in an area of Libya already controlled by the rebels and near the coast where it can be readily secured by a coalition of international military forces mandated by the Security Council strictly for the purpose of protecting civilians.

Any endangered people should be welcomed into the U.N.-protected zone if they have laid down their arms and do not intend to launch attacks from the humanitarian area against people outside the zone.

Libyan government officials and military and security personnel should also be invited to the U.N. zone if they accept the above conditions and are committed to bringing their own future conduct into conformity with international humanitarian and human rights law — law which prohibits them from targeting unarmed civilians. If they do this, the Security Council could assure them they will not be prosecuted for past misconduct. On the other hand, officials who would continue to follow any further illegal commands would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. There is no statute of limitation on war crimes and crimes against humanity.

To appeal to those with personal or tribal loyalty to Gaddafi, the Security Council could assure that if Gaddafi is indicted by the International Criminal Court, that he would not face execution (the ICC cannot impose the death penalty) nor would he be pressed to admit guilt out of court.

In addition to insisting that the Libyan government stop using violence against unarmed citizens and that the rebels not use violence to attack government positions, it should conduct a U.N.-administered referendum in Libya on the current government and constitution, necessitated by the loss of confidence of many Libyans in the government and the international community’s responsibility to protect citizens whose rights are being grossly violated.

Finally, it should require that, after the ICC completes its investigations, all indictees must face a fair trial unless they earlier had accepted the conditional amnesty being offered to them. The Security Council might even consider allowing Gaddafi, if indicted, to be allowed a plea bargain or a reduced sentence, if convicted, in return for leaving office permanently and agreeing in advance to abide by the outcome of the referendum.

Of course Gaddafi might decide to attack the humanitarian corridor, but he and his forces would be less likely to do that than they would be to attack an invading combat force that would try to take control of large parts of Libya or establish a no-fly zone. A direct attack on a U.N.-mandated humanitarian zone would be clear evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity that could be used to convict any who might participate.

For the humanitarian corridor to work in Libya, there must be a cooperative international force that is capable and committed to defending it and protecting the people.

For the peaceful purpose of establishing a humanitarian zone in Libya and a referendum in the service of upholding international law, the members of the Security Council might well agree.

Robert C. Johansen is a professor of political science and senior fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. A founding faculty member of the Kroc Institute, his research and teaching focus on the United Nations and the maintenance of peace and security, and peace and world order studies.

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