Preventing Revenge Violence in Libya

UN Security Resolution 1973 authorizes members states to take “all measures necessary to protect civilians” in Libya. Right now, the rebel forces are battling to survive in the face on the Libyan military’s onslaught, but what will happen to non-revolutionary civilians and prisoners of war if foreign intervention not only halts the advance of Gaddafi’s forces but also allows the rebels to retake ground? In answering this question, the international community needs to break from the mistakes of past interventions.

Reprisal killings and displacement usually follow victory by one side in a civil war over its opponents, with the victorious force or its supporters attacking civilians viewed, whether correctly or not, as the favored constituency of the ousted or soon-to-be-ousted regime. Neither the United States nor its usual allies have shown much willingness to stop these crimes during successive interventions (think: Serbs and Roma in Kosovo, Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan, and Iraqis of all sects).

This time should be different. The intervening parties in Libya should make it clear to the rebels that no amount of revenge violence against civilian supporters of the Gaddafi regime, or loyalist tribes, or foreign migrant workers or any other group will be tolerated.

Likewise, the international community should be absolutely clear that it expects prisoners of war to be treated humanely, in accordance with international law, regardless of which side they fought for. Revenge violence and crimes against captured and disarmed combatants are not only immoral and illegal but also dim the prospects for long-term peace and development, as residents of Mitrovica, Baghdad and Kunduz know all too well. Leaders who invoked the stains of Kigali and Srebrenica in calling for intervention in Libya must also commit to preventing another Dasht-i-Laili.

There are no indications so far that the Libyan rebel forces intend to carry out revenge violence, and their National Transition Council is comprised of people seemingly committed to upholding international law. At the same time, accounts from the battlefields suggest the rebel command structure is loose-to-non-existent. And no fighting force is without its twisted elements.

The international community needs to be clear that it will go just as far to prevent and punish any crimes by the forces of the revolution as it will in responding to the brutality of the Libyan military.