Arrest Warrants On The Way for Libyan War Crimes. What Difference Will it Make?

ICC Prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo told the Security Council this morning that he will request arrest warrants for three Libyan officials who are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  At the Security Council briefing this morning, Ocampo said that he has collected evidence of war crimes–and that war crimes and crimes against humanity mat still be occuring.

Interestingly, Ocampo also signaled out the rebel forces in Benhgazi for rebuke.  His office has received reports of mob violence directed against sub-Saharan Africans who are suspected of being mercenaries, but might actually be migrant workers caught up in the fighting.

So what is next?

Alas, I don’t think it changes much. The main political effect of war crimes indictments against heads of state is to isolate them from the international community (isolation being a form of coercion and punishment.) The thing is, Qaddafi is already completely and utterly isolated. He has no friends abroad, and no pretensions of running a country anytime in the near future.

This is in contrast to the other head of state wanted by the ICC, Sudan’s Omar al Bashir.  In that case, the ICC’s action against Bashir did have a fairly profound isolating effect on his regime. Bashir curtailed his international travel and has been shunned by most of the west and much of Africa and Asia. The fact of the arrest warrant did have a material effect on how Sudan conducts its foreign policy.

Qaddafi is already a man in hiding, so it is hard to see how this impending arrest warrant will have any near term consequences for the situation on the ground in Libya. That said, these kinds of judicial processes to serve as an important deterrent to other leaders who decide that the violent suppression of dissent is a legitimate use of state power. It is also one more chink in the armor of state sovereignty behind which leaders have traditionally protected themselves while unleashing fury on their own citizens.

So, get to it, ICC!