The fall of a tyrant is usually the cause of popular rejoicing followed by public vengeance. This is the fate the rebels obviously want for Colonel Gaddafi – hence their £1m bounty on his head and offer of a pardon for his killer. But it is just possible, should he be taken alive, that we will enter a new and better era in which tyrants will instead be dispatched to The Hague for fair trial in an international court for their crimes against humanity.
David Cameron has made one serious mistake – parroted repeatedly by the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell – by insisting that the fate of the Gaddafis should be a matter for the Libyan people. This was the line George Bush took after the capture of Saddam Hussein, as a rhetorical cover for his determination that the death penalty be imposed on the Iraqi despot by politically manipulated local judges.
It is too much to expect that Gaddafi can receive justice at the hands of those whom he has repressed for so long, in a corrupt judicial system that he controlled (and so could not be considered “judicial” in any real sense). It must now be reconstructed from scratch, with new judges independent of the National Transitional Council. That gimcrack organisation’s UN spokesman said that it wants to organise Gaddafi’s trial, but it is plainly unable to secure an unbiased legal process when he does fall into its hands. The bounty on his head seems to confirm the NTC’s preference for Gaddafi’s summary execution.
There is a more important reason of principle why the fate of the Gaddafis must not be left to the Libyans. The colonel is charged with crimes against humanity – the mass murder of civilians by perpetrating offences so barbaric that the very fact that a fellow human being can commit them demeans us all. Ordering the massacre of 1,200 captives in a prison compound, blowing 270 people out of the sky over Lockerbie, and almost as many in a UTA passenger jet over Chad a few months later – these are merely the most egregious examples of international crimes committed by the worst man left in the world. It is essential, therefore, that Gaddafi face real justice in The Hague and not revenge in Benghazi.
Moreover, liberation has come to the Libyans by courtesy of international law and they have a reciprocal duty to abide by it. The UN security council decided, by adopting resolution 1970, to refer the situation there to the international criminal court in The Hague, which in consequence brought down the indictments on Gaddafi, Gaddafi’s son Saif and Abdullah al-Senussi, a relative who heads their intelligence service. By adopting resolution 1973 the security council mandated Nato action in order to protect civilian lives, and nobody pretends that the regime could have been overthrown without that air, sea and logistical support. The rebel leaders have a legal duty to hand any captured indictees over to the ICC, and the UK should insist that they do so.
Perhaps most importantly, the idea of putting tyrants on trial has caught on in the countries that they tyrannise. The slogans in the Syrian streets this week say “Assad to The Hague”. There is an expectation of justice that has arisen in the Arab spring, and Cameron must not disappoint it.
“Gaddafi to The Hague” will send a chilling signal to all other governments tempted to kill their own people. There is no decent or lawful alternative, and leaders of Nato countries must make that very clear to the National Transitional Council.
Geoffrey Robertson QC , head of Doughty Street Chambers and the co‑author of Robertson and Nicol on Media Law.