Seumas Milne Guardian/UK 15 May 2012
Liberia's Charles Taylor has been convicted of war crimes, so why not the western leaders who escalated Libya's killing? Libya was supposed to be different. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan had been learned, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy insisted. This would be a real humanitarian intervention. Unlike Iraq, there would be no boots on the ground. Unlike in Afghanistan, Nato air power would be used to support a fight for freedom and prevent a massacre. Unlike the Kosovo campaign, there would be no indiscriminate cluster bombs: only precision weapons would be used. This would be a war to save civilian lives.
The fruits of liberal intervention in Libya are now cruelly clear, and documented by the UN and human rights groups: 8,000 prisoners held without trial, rampant torture and routine deaths in detention, the ethnic cleansing of Tawerga, a town of 30,000 mainly black Libyans (already in the frame as a crime against humanity) and continuing violent persecution of sub-Saharan Africans across the country.
Libya is in the lawless grip of rival warlords and armed conflict between militias, as the western-installed National Transitional Council (NTC) passes Gaddafi-style laws clamping down on freedom of speech, gives legal immunity to former rebels and disqualifies election candidates critical of the new order. The New York-based Human Rights Watch this week released a report into the deaths of at least 72 Libyan civilians, a third of them children, killed in eight separate bombing raids, (seven on non-military targets), and denounced Nato for still refusing to investigate or even acknowledge civilian deaths that were denied at the time. So while the death toll was between 1,000 and 2,000 when Nato intervened in March, by October it was estimated by the NTC to be 30,000 – including thousands of civilians.
We can't of course know what would have happened without Nato's bombing campaign. But we do know that Nato provided decisive air cover for the rebels as they matched Gaddafi's forces war crime for war crime, carried out massacres of their own and indiscriminately shelled civilian areas with devastating results – such as reduced much of Sirte to rubble last October. So Nato certainly shared responsibility for the deaths of many more civilians than its missiles directly incinerated.
That is the kind of indirect culpability that led to the conviction last month of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, in the UN-backed special court for Sierra Leone in The Hague. Taylor was found guilty of "aiding and abetting" war crimes and crimes against humanity during Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s. But he was cleared of directly ordering atrocities carried out by Sierra Leonean rebels. Which pretty well describes the role played by Nato in Libya last year.
But there is of course simply no question of Nato leaders being held to legal account for the Libyan carnage, any more than they have been for far more direct crimes carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan. George Bush has boasted of authorising the international crime of torture and faced not so much as a caution. Which only underlines that what is called international law simply doesn't apply to the big powers or their leaders. In the 10 years of its existence, the International criminal court has indicted 28 people from seven countries for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Every single one of them is African – even though ICC signatories include war-wracked states such as Colombia and Afghanistan.
That's rather as if the criminal law in Britain only applied to people earning the minimum wage and living in Cornwall. But so long as international law is only used against small or weak states in the developing world, it won't be a system of international justice, but an instrument of power politics and imperial enforcement.
Just as the urgent lesson of Libya – for the rest of the Arab world and beyond – is that however it is dressed up, foreign military intervention isn't a short cut to freedom. And far from saving lives, again and again it has escalated slaughter.