The reaction of the Libyan government to civil unrest in its territory has been markedly different from those of its neighbours. In Egypt and Tunisia, unpopular regimes fell at the sheer scale of protests mounted by citizens; in Libya, Col. Moammar Gadhafi—the country’s ruler since 1969—unleashed troops loyal to him on the protestors. United Nations (UN) estimates put the civilian toll at 1,000 in the last 10 days.
On Saturday, the UN Security Council (UNSC) imposed sanctions on the Gadhafi regime. Gadhafi has also been referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity.
More than the vote, it was this referral that split the Council during the debate on the subject. China was opposed to the move, while France, UK and Germany strongly advocated the measure and the remaining members located somewhere in the middle. In the end, China was persuaded to join the majority.
Pushing countries on their human rights record is always controversial. Tyrants always point a finger at democracies and say that the latter always get away with such violations in their territory merely because they are democracies. This is not true, strictly speaking, as India—a democracy in good standing for long—has often borne the brunt of such arguments at various international fora, mostly for no reason. At the same time, extreme reactions by governments cannot be ignored and there is a sub-set of conditions under which multilateral sanctions are justified. Some of these conditions—the combination of unrepresentative government and the use of armed forces against unarmed civilians—in distinction to, say, an armed rebellion by a restive sub-population—obtain in today’s Libya.
The fact is while human rights cannot be trampled upon, their advocacy—especially at the UNSC—is fraught with high international politics where the “purity” of pious motives is always doubtful. While the pursuit of human rights and justice for all is a laudable goal, the danger is that it is very suitable for the promotion of foreign policy goals of rich and powerful countries. Respecting the wishes and rights of one’s citizens is a key ingredient to avoid getting sucked into the political agenda of the powers that be. As recent events show, many countries have ignored this to their peril.
Are human rights a bogey for overthrowing governments? Tell us at email@example.com