Libya 2011: weve been here before - civilians at risk

"In his compound", "human shields", "mandate for attacks", "strategic assets": when the world's media is using this language it can easily feel like we're back in the early days of the Iraq invasion in March 2003.

But this is Libya, 2011, and it's both different and the same as Iraq. The biggest difference, of course, is that the stated aim of the present intervention is to protect civilians (not to eradicate WMDs). But, as with Iraq, ensuring that civilians are not themselves harmed by the intervention is a key concern of Amnesty's.

The UK forces are clearly aware of this. When their spokespeople inform journalists that a bombing mission was aborted because of the danger that civilians would be hit, it is (one hopes) because their key decision-makers are carefully applying the rules of war to military operations. They know, of course, that the PR "war" around civilian deaths and "collateral damage" is now a major issue in every conflict or counter-insurgency operation. (I was reminded of this last night, listening to former CIA boss Michael Hayden blithely describing US drone attacks in Pakistan as the "best game in town" without,  however, mentioning the hundreds of civilians they've reportedly killed).

What next? Well, it's vital that the claim to be protecting unarmed Libyans is rigorously monitored – by journalists, the UN, human rights organisations and by Libyans themselves. As some commentators have said, this may later mean people in Tripoli being protected from revenge attacks by Libyan rebels.

Meanwhile, in Benghazi, Amnesty’s researcher Donatella Rovera has been hearing about “sleeper cells” of Gaddafi loyalists attempting to wreak havoc with indiscriminate shootings of men, women and children (read her post here, including a disturbing account of an attack on a family which resulted in the serious wounding of a young boy, while his father has been killed and his mother is in a coma).

A couple of other Middle East and North Africa things. Events in Yemen are looking increasingly perilous, with the country apparently on the edge of civil war. Check out this audio clip* of Amnesty expert Dina el-Mahmoun talking about the “anger” of Yemenis at recent mass killings of protestors in the country, as well as giving a handy backgrounder on recent discontent in the country. And keep an eye too on Syria where killings have also marred recent human rights protests (Amnesty’s calling for an independent investigation).

But back to Libya. Donatella’s Rovera’s post concludes with the doleful account of how a 20-year-old student in Benghazi was seriously injured after a celebratory shot into the air led to him being hit as the bullet travelled back down to earth (it’s a popular conception that shooting into the air is not dangerous. It is: people are regularly killed this way).

Death from the sky comes in many forms in modern warfare. And it’s nearly always civilians who are on the receiving end.

(*It's the small audio player on the front page – right-hand side! Will post direct link tomorrow).

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