Four years ago this month, the world came together to stop Moammar Kadafi as his security forces massacred peaceful demonstrators during the Arab Spring. The U.N. Security Council sanctioned Libya and referred the violence to the International Criminal Court. Within weeks, the security council, with the blessing of the Arab League, authorized any means necessary to protect Libyan civilians, and NATO and its Arab allies began an air war to stop Kadafi’s advance on the city of Benghazi.
One senior U.S. official had warned that if Kadafi took Benghazi, the ensuing massacre would be “Srebrenica on steroids,” an ominous reference to the U.N.’s failure to stop the 1995 massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys in eastern Bosnia by Serb forces. By contrast, in Libya, the world actually acted on its oft-repeated pledge of “never again.” The intervention culminated with rebels killing Kadafi as he tried to flee in October 2011.
That unified international response reflected a rare alignment of geopolitics with humanitarian concerns and a rare triumph for the principle of human rights trumping state sovereignty. Four years later, Libya is a broken country. The decisive intervention of 2011 was premised on the idea of protecting Libyans’ human rights, but the failure to follow through on that idea has arguably left Libyans more vulnerable than they were under Kadafi.
Reporting on Libya has focused on the chaos that has ruptured the country into two rival governments and on their militia surrogates that battle for control over resources and power. Now attention has turned to the Libyan affiliate of Islamic State, which, acting with impunity amid the chaos, kidnapped and beheaded 21 Egyptian Christian workers.
But there are other atrocities and abuses as well, and they rarely capture headlines. Since 2011, thousands of people deemed Kadafi sympathizers have been languishing in extrajudicial detention. Journalists, judges, police officers and civil society activists are kidnapped and assassinated almost daily with virtually no follow-up investigations or arrests by Libyan authorities.
An estimated 400,000 Libyans are internally displaced by the fighting. Libya has become the transit ground for smuggling illegal migrants, thousands of whom have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Human Rights Watch recently reported that 2014 was the worst year for human rights in Libya since Kadafi’s downfall.
Even after the rapprochement with Kadafi that began in the early 2000s, human rights were not a central concern for the West. Instead of using their leverage to press Kadafi to improve his atrocious human rights record, Western governments concentrated on removing his chemical weapons, getting his cooperation on counter-terrorism and securing access to Libya’s oil resources.
After the fall of Kadafi, the West enjoyed a reservoir of goodwill among Libyans that gave it clout to press the new government on human rights. But the West’s pragmatism made it reticent to pursue a rights agenda once again. The government was weak, under threat from the militias responsible for the ongoing abuses. Western governments feared that pressing authorities on human rights could weaken the fragile government further.
After the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in September 2012, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed, Washington’s attention turned to counter-terrorism and bringing the perpetrators to justice. As for the International Criminal Court, it has so far failed to bring any charges against members of anti-Kadafi rebel militias implicated in serious crimes.
Now most Western non-government organizations, embassies and the U.N. have closed their operations in Libya, leaving the outside world unable to effectively monitor and document human rights abuses. Because of this and the fact that the media’s attention is focused on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the deeper Libya human rights crisis has been largely forgotten.
Human rights is not only about morality. It is also about enforcing the rule of law and building a strong state that respects liberty and protects its own people. Rampant human rights abuses have been both a cause and symptom of the instability and chaos that have made Libya ungovernable. Post-Kadafi Libya is an object lesson in the importance of bolstering human rights in order to maintain order and build the legitimacy of governing institutions.
The international community faces human rights crises the world over; it can never devote enough attention and resources to all of them. But seen from the vantage point of February and March 2011, when the world came together to protect Libyans, the global neglect of the situation in Libya stands out not just as a moral failure, but a failure to advance Western interests, stability and human rights on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College. Victor Peskin is an associate professor in the Arizona State University School of Politics and Global Studies.