Monday, November 5, 2012

Are Ashton's friends using white phosphorous in Libya?

Freedom now reigns in Libya - or so Catherine Ashton would have us believe.

On 23 October, the EU's foreign policy chief issued a statement congratulating the Libyan people "on the first anniversary of the historic declaration of liberation". While Ashton did profess concern about ongoing violence, the general tone of her comments was triumphant.

Four days later, the television channel RT broadcast horrific images from Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli. The RT report included allegations made by a local lawyer that the militia attacking the city was using white phosphorous munitions.

RT is financed by Russia - like the BBC is financed by the British state - but does that mean its report should be dismissed? Organisations viewed as credible in this part of the world have previously documented the presence of chemical weapons in Libya. A journalist with The New York Times found white phosphorous in a Libyan weapons depot during 2011. According to the journal of record, the depot had belonged to Muammar Gaddafi's regime but had fallen into rebel hands. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, came across white phosphorous at "multiple sites" in Libya earlier this year.

The fact that the white phosphorous allegations from Bani Walid have been ignored by most media outlets does not make them untrue. The mainstream press failed to probe claims that the US bombarded the Iraqi city of Fallujah with white phosphorous in 2004. Fortunately, a number of bloggers kept digging until they had produced proof that the substance had indeed been used. After a year of obfuscation, the Pentagon finally owned up in 2005.

Grievous injuries

White phosphorous can cause grievous injuries. Once it comes in contact with human skin, it can burn deeply through the muscle and into the bone. America's best buddy Israel made extensive use of this substance during its all-out offensive on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. Just as there have been international campaigns, culminating in agreements to ban landmines and cluster bombs, there ought to be a mass mobilisation against white phosphorous.

The militia attacking Bani Walid appear to be on "our" side. Last year Ashton told rebels fighting Gaddafi that "we will be here to support you all the way". Some of those rebels apparently want to teach Bani Walid a lesson because it was a pro-Gaddafi stronghold. The attack was sparked by the death in September of Omran Shaaban, a rebel suspected of capturing and helping to kill Gaddafi. Shaaban had been kidnapped in Bani Walid.

Are the women and children in this city now being exposed to white phosphorous as part of an act of vengeance? I don't have the answer to that question. But surely it requires investigation.

Of course, our governments have a history of only getting upset about Libya when it suits them? Having been told repeatedly that Gaddafi was a "mad dog", I was astonished to pick up a newspaper one day in 2003 and learn of how his rapprochement with the West. Gaddafi bought so much European weaponry over the next few years that he must have amassed a huge collection of loyalty cards from our arms dealers. He even delivered a lecture in the European Commission's press room, encircled by his troupe of female bodyguards. But then he started making awkward queries about how Libya's oil resources were benefiting some corporations more than others. And so he became a "mad dog" again.

Incapable of wrongdoing?

We, on the other hand, are incapable of wrongdoing. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, expressed pride recently about how the alliance "prevented a massacre and helped protect civilians from attack" in Libya last year. How did NATO achieve that feat? By dropping a total of 7,642 "surface-to-air weapons", according to NATO's own data.

Every so often NATO's legal adviser Peter Olson is invited to speak at prestigious conferences on respecting international humanitarian law in modern warfare. Strangely, the same Peter Olson is less enthusiastic about opening up NATO's own record on respecting international humanitarian law to scrutiny. Earlier this year, he wrote to the UN's International Commission of Enquiry on Libya, expressing concern that incidents involving NATO could be treated in the commission's report as being "on a par" with those that "did violate law or constitute crimes". Olson urged that the report "clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes in Libya."

There was something arrogant about how Olson tried to dictate what the findings of an independent enquiry should be. As it happened, the International Commission did express concern about a number of airstrikes carried out by NATO. Its report stated that the enquiry was "unable to conclude, barring additional explanation, whether these strikes are consistent with NATO's objective to avoid civilian casualties entirely, or whether NATO took all necessary precautions to that effect". Amnesty International has cited "credible reports" that some of NATO's attacks killed "at least tens of civilians". And the aforementioned Human Rights Watch declared in May this year that NATO has "failed to acknowledge dozens of civilian casualties" resulting from its 2011 war and has "not investigate possible unlawful attacks".

Leaving aside NATO's direct responsibility, there is a general consensus among human rights monitors that both rebel and pro-Gaddafi fighters carried out indiscriminate attacks. Shouldn't Catherine Ashton, therefore, admit that some of the rebels she supported "all the way" were war criminals? Of course, she should. But I'm not holding my breath.

•First published by New Europe, 4-10 November 2012.

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