Arms against a sea of troubles: civilians at risk in Libya

I've seen a lot of commentators in the media saying that they genuinely don't know whether a UN-authorised military intervention in Libya is a good or a bad idea.

There appears to be genuine uncertainty. To use Simon Tisdall's formulation, is this an Iraq-in-2003 moment or, far less catastrophically, a Kuwait-in-1991 situation?

Leaving aside the inherent dangerousness of making these historical comparisons (every situation is unique, why does Libya-in-2011 have to be like anything that's ever happened?), I get the general point. The early announcement of a Libyan ceasefire from Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa would seem to suggest that UN action has already led to a positive outcome, but who can say what will happen next?

Amnesty has warned that the protection of civilians is of paramount importance, whether from the artillery shells of Gaddafi's forces, aerial strikes from US, French or UK jets, or, for the matter, from the less high-powered weaponry of Libyan rebels.

Amid this level of international grandstanding it's easy to lose sight of the human cost at the local level. This week we've had (thankfully) the release of the Guardian's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, but also several other journalists have been reported missing (including four from the New York Times).

Again, how many people are being killed, taken hostage or detained? How are they being treated if they’re in captivity?  On Wednesday the Libyan government mounted a press conference in Tripoli at which they paraded a Libyan man from Manchester (Salah Mohammed Ali Aboaoba, a joint UK-Libyan national) who was supposedly a rebel fighter influenced (they said) by al-Qa'ida. Ominously his fate remains unclear. Meanwhile, Donatella Rovera, Amnesty's researcher in Libya, has warned that there could be a wave of fresh “disappearances“ of prominent opponents if Gaddafi’s forces sweep into Benghazi and other eastern towns and cities. (Read more from Donatella here).

And all the time civilians who are not combatants are at risk. In fact, these are almost certainly the overwhelming number of Libyans. Let’s not forget, that there will be plenty of people who supported pro-democracy, pro-human rights demos from the “17 February” period who are not now taking up arms with the eastern rebels.

Please support Amnesty’s call for safe passage and protection for thousands of civilians fleeing the fighting in Libya. The exodus from Libya has, till now, been mainly of Tunisians and Egyptians (an irony of sorts in this ever-more complex “Arab Spring”), but this could easily become massive numbers of Libyans, not least if large-scale bombardments from no-fly-zone enforcers begin.


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