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Australasian Spartacist No. 216

Winter 2012

NATO War Crimes in Libya

In March 2011, a dinghy packed with 72 black Africans fleeing the NATO bombing of Libya and the poverty and racist persecution they had suffered there ran out of fuel and drifted at sea for two weeks. The boat’s desperate occupants sent out repeated distress calls to nearby NATO ships. The imperialist military commanders left the refugees to die of starvation and thirst.

Only nine survived. When they eventually made it to Europe, their harrowing story was picked up by the London Guardian. They described how, within hours of the first distress signal, a military helicopter dropped off some bottles of water and a few packets of biscuits before disappearing over the horizon. Days later, after half the occupants had already died, the boat drifted so close to a large military vessel that the refugees could see sailors on the deck taking photos of them. Frantically appealing for help, the despairing passengers held aloft bodies of the dead, but the warship simply pulled away.

On 29 March this year, the Council of Europe, which includes representatives of 47 capitalist countries, issued a report on its investigation of the incident, which took place amid the NATO imperialists’ bombing campaign in support of forces arrayed against the regime of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. The Council report is a cynical whitewash, blandly concluding that “NATO did not fully take up its responsibilities” to save the refugees’ lives.

Led by the U.S., France and Britain, and backed by jackal Australian imperialism, the NATO war against Libya was a stark illustration of the workings of the imperialist system, in which a handful of advanced capitalist countries terrorise and subjugate the world’s weaker and more backward societies in the pursuit of spheres of exploitation. It was sanctioned by the United Nations—an assemblage of imperialist murderers, their victims and accomplices. Some 1,500 refugees from Libya died last year trying to make it to Europe. Citing the succession of boats loaded with refugees that sank in a small sea packed with NATO warships, our SL/U.S. comrades wrote at the time: “This cannot be called anything but mass murder” (“Refugees Drown as Imperialists Step Up War on Libya,” Workers Vanguard No. 981, 27 May 2011).

Before the imperialist attack, Libya was being racked by what was a low-intensity civil war between Gaddafi’s bourgeois regime and an imperialist-backed opposition based in the east of the country, heavily overlaid by tribal and regional divisions. In that conflict, the proletariat had no side. However, with the beginning of the NATO bombing on 19 March 2011, the civil war became subordinated to imperialist military intervention. The anti-Gaddafi forces—a collection of former Gaddafi henchmen, monarchists, Islamic fundamentalists, tribal chiefs and others—acted as the ground troops for the imperialists.

From the start of the bombardment, we said that workers around the world should take a stand for the defence of Libya against the imperialist powers, without giving any political support to the Gaddafi regime. We noted that the imperialist intervention, cynically launched in the name of protecting civilians, would slaughter countless men, women and children.

This March, a UN Commission of Inquiry declared that the “rebels” had engaged in war crimes during the NATO offensive by carrying out such acts as torture of suspected opponents and revenge attacks directed against entire communities. Recurring throughout the litany of atrocities in the UN report are lynchings, beatings and racist abuse directed by the imperialist-backed forces against dark-skinned Libyans and black Africans. Those forces have plumbed new depths in the legacy of racism that was fostered under Gaddafi’s regime, which had subjected black African migrant workers to arbitrary arrest and deportation—and at times outright pogromist attacks—while using them as scapegoats for unemployment and other ills. The rebels, as they seized areas formerly held by the Gaddafi government, carried out their own pogroms against black Africans, whom they labelled as pro-Gaddafi mercenaries.

In one case described in detail by the UN Commission, the Libyan opposition in August 2011 attacked the town of Tawergha southeast of Tripoli and, with the support of NATO bombing, drove out all of its 30,000 residents. These were mainly black descendants of slaves brought by Arab slave-traders to this part of North Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of the town was razed, and the word “slave” was scrawled on the walls of buildings left standing. Refugees from Tawergha were pursued throughout the country, including in refugee camps, and rounded up to be tortured or killed. Scores of Tawerghan men and women told of being forced to crawl on all fours and bark while the rebels called them “dogs” or forced them to acknowledge their tormentors as their slave masters.

The victory of the anti-Gaddafi ground forces was made possible by the campaign of NATO air bombardment—by official count, some 7,700 bombs and missiles were unleashed on the country—that left its own trail of slaughter of civilians. In a single attack on the village of Majer, east of Tripoli, some 34 civilians were slaughtered on 8 August 2011 when NATO warplanes dropped a series of laser-guided, 500-pound bombs on three homes. Contrast that wanton destruction of human life with the imperialists’ painstaking care to avoid the slightest impairment of Libya’s 40 critical oil and gas fields: The only damage to speak of, throughout the entire war, was at an oil field in the east where a transformer got knocked out. The massacre at Majer included a tactic that survivors at several other sites also recounted: NATO bombers would restrike targets minutes after the first attack, thus dropping high-explosive ordnance on doctors and other civilians rushing to aid the wounded. The word for this is terrorism.

Following the capture and gruesome murder of Gaddafi last October, a gloating U.S. president Barack Obama proclaimed: “The Libyan people can now celebrate their freedom.” In fact, much of the population has been subjected to an all-sided reign of terror. A provisional government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), oversees the flow of oil, negotiating lucrative contracts with the oil multinationals, and controls the billions in assets of the Gaddafi regime that the imperialists had frozen. Meanwhile, in addition to the NTC’s official army, hundreds of militias and tribal-based groups throughout the country are jostling for power—and a share of the wealth—while gunning down rivals, imprisoning suspected opponents and inflicting hideous tortures on a vast scale.

Reports coming from some Western bourgeois liberal organisations offer a glimpse of the atrocities. A 26 January article by Amnesty International titled “Libya: Deaths of Detainees Amid Widespread Torture” reported on the torture of Libyans and migrant workers from sub-Saharan African countries being carried out in detention centres in Tripoli and other cities by “officially recognized military and security entities as well [as] by a multitude of armed militias operating outside any legal framework.” Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced in January that it was ceasing operations in the city of Misurata after having treated over 100 people with torture-inflicted wounds, since detainees were being brought for medical treatment simply to make them fit for further torture sessions. Since MSF pulled out, local medics have continued treating torture victims. One told of seeing nine prisoners whose genitalia had been cut off (Associated Press, 3 March).

The perpetrators of these acts represent the “free Libya” forces that were hailed in Washington, London, Canberra and other imperialist capitals. Here in Australia, the federal ALP minority government, backed by the opposition and the Greens, fully supported the imperialist bombardment of Libya from the get-go, with then-foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, in the vanguard of those who pushed for a “no-fly zone.” Meanwhile, various reformist leftists—from the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France and the British Socialist Workers Party to Socialist Alternative (SAlt) in Australia—echoed the capitalist media, portraying the opposition to Gaddafi as the Libyan component of the “Arab Spring.” A week before the imperialists launched the bombing campaign that the rebel forces had been clamouring for, SAlt published a screed, “Libya and the Left,” castigating left groups who undermined the so-called “Libyan revolution,” including those who “attempted to depict it as a reactionary movement in alliance with US imperialism” (11 March 2011).

By the time Tripoli fell in August, SAlt had attempted to cover its tracks, opining that “Western intervention pushed the character of the resistance to Gaddafi in a rightward direction and has ensured, for now at least, that the new interim government will have a reactionary character.” Nonetheless they declared that the fall of Gaddafi “creates a democratic space in which students and workers will be able to organise” (22 August 2011). The stark fact is that SAlt & Co. acted as cheerleaders for the Libyan opposition, which never made a secret of their desire for imperialist intervention to back up their drive to oust Gaddafi.

Meanwhile Socialist Alliance (SA), in an 18 March 2011 statement reprinted in their newspaper Green Left Weekly (GLW, 23 March 2011), “oppose[d] imperialist intervention” while moaning that if the imperialists seriously wanted to help the “Libyan people’s uprisings” they would have acted sooner to deliver weapons to the “freedom fighters.” SA called for “immediate international aid (including military supplies without conditions) to the Libyan uprising” and, in fact, the imperialists did covertly arm the Libyan opposition forces as well as providing on-the-ground military guidance. Bragging how they had “helped organise actions in solidarity with [the Libyan] uprising,” SA also called for “recognition of the rebel Interim Transitional National Council.” Some five months later, after Gaddafi fell, SA discovered it had “questions about the nature of the new regime...and to what extent it will truly reflect the interests of Libya’s people” (GLW, 28 August 2011).

Not that they could care. For months SA busily held a gentlemanly debate in the online journal Links (a “sister publication” of GLW) over whether or not to back the bloody imperialist bombing of Libya! A 3 April 2011 article co-authored by Iggy Kim and Marce Cameron, both ex-members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a 2008 split from SA, declared that support to NATO’s onslaught was “a necessary evil” in defence of the “Libyan revolution.” They were joined by SA honcho Renfrey Clarke, who asserted that “the global left has no choice for the present but to tolerate the bombing.... [T]he Libyan revolt would have been crushed except for the fact that imperialism on March 19 came to its rescue” (3 May 2011). Later, SA cadre Michael Karadjis disagreed with Clarke’s “detailed and thoughtful piece”—but not from any principled opposition to imperialism, as shown by his musings on “whether or not it was possible to support a brief, initial intervention to save Benghazi” (23 June 2011). Of course, to this day, all these social chauvinists trumpet the 1999 campaign by the Democratic Socialist Party (forerunner of SA and the party in which they were ensconced) for the Australian imperialist military to occupy East Timor.

The role of these reformist pseudo-socialist groups is to hide the reality that imperialist war crimes are an inevitable part of the same capitalist system that grinds down the working class, immigrants and the poor at home. In opposing imperialist wars and occupations, we Trotskyists fight to forge a revolutionary workers party that will infuse the proletariat with the understanding of its historic task of overthrowing the capitalist order through socialist revolution.

Adapted from Workers Vanguard
No. 1000, 13 April.


Australasian Spartacist No. 216

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Winter 2012


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