Libya: how bad is it?

I’ve been viewing a lot of entries in Amnesty's media awards recently and I was reminded of the way that sometimes it takes months or even years before the truth about human rights abuses finally emerges. It's feeling a little like this with Libya.
At the end of last month Amnesty was warning that at least 30 people (but probably many more) had been "disappeared" by the Libyan authorities.  As I said on the blog recently, four more detained and now missing people are also now being sought by families and friends (two are Brits), but worryingly there's no news of their whereabouts.

The chaos of conflict in Libya is almost certainly obscuring a picture which, when it emerges, is likely to be very, very grim. There was a horrific taste of this in Chris McGreal's Guardian report today, based around a man recounting how he and other opposition fighters (actual or suspected) were held in an underground cell in Sirte and, in ones and twos, taken out and viciously beaten (the Orwellian device of a boot stamping on someone's face apparently played a big part in the torture).

The fate of civilians in Misrata is rightly occupying minds today. Amnesty's researcher in the city Donatella Rovera has recently seen evidence of the use by Gaddafi's forces of largely indiscriminate weapons like cluster munitions and Grad rockets. It's beyond frightening to put yourself in the shoes of people currently trapped and under bombardment in Misrata. Imagine it, if you can … Here’s what Donatella has been saying this afternoon:

"Shelling is happening all around me. There is very little help coming in and there is no way for the people of Misrata to get out of here. They are stuck. There are only a few boats arriving, which can only take away a few of the most injured patients. It is so dangerous here, it is so unsafe. There is some aid getting through, some food and medicine, but it is not enough. The only water we have is distributed through water tankers and the electricity we have is coming through generators. It's just not sustainable."

There are reports that Misrata's water purification plant has been bombed (shades of Gaza about this) and that yesterday a dairy was hit. Neither would normally be legitimate military targets and you have to wonder at the frightening human cost of these attacks (not to mention an untold number of cows presumably killed in the dairy attack as well).

You don't exactly see it put this way in the human rights textbooks, but non-combatants are no more a legitimate target in war than innocent creatures like cows. Similarly, under the Geneva Conventions captured combatants should be treated humanely and definitely not abused (I reckon there’s another parallel here over how animals are sometimes cruelly mistreated in the food-supply industries, but that's another story …).

Libya is looking increasingly desperate and I fear that in years to come I'm going to be watching DVDs of programmes that have uncovered some of the terrible crimes committed during this war. Let's hope not.

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