Alone in Sirte

by Jonathan Todd

Human rights, by definition, are held by all humans. In spite of Lockerbie, Yvonne Fletcher’s murder and his tyrannical 42-year misrule of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was human. He, therefore, deserved a fair trial in a Libyan court or in The Hague. That he would certainly have been found guilty before such a court does not detract from the belittlement, both of those denied and those who deny, inherent in denying fundamental human rights.

Justice can never come from the mob; only vengeance. No matter how understandable the desire for vengeance, it is not justice. It is wonderful that Libya now has a chance for freedom, so long prevented by Gaddafi. The West should respond with a carrots and sticks offer of support as transformative as that offered to Eastern Europe by the EU after the fall of communism. But it would be a more fitting and solid foundation for this epoch had it begun with an act of justice, not with what seemed more like the fall of Mussolini than the Nuremburg trials.

No one is quibbling in Libya now, I know. Still, to have the despotic brought to heal by institutions of justice seems, in the longer run, likely to be a more cathartic basis for the oppressed to recover than to visit violence with violence. This catharsis is rooted in showing that order now comes from the rule of law, not from crude strength or even a golden gun. History teaches us that violence tends only to beget more violence.

For the most part, with the exception of a brief period in August, securing order by the rule of law is second nature to most British people. But, because of Gaddafi’s barbaric rule, and the inevitably gradual recovery from it that Libya will now try to move through, it is unlikely to be wholly so for many Libyans. Putting Gaddafi on trial would have done more to embed in the minds of Libyans the changed reality that all Libyans are equal before the law than what transpired. The greatest travesty, of course, would be that this reality doesn’t come to pass.

No one is quibbling amongst the British tabloids either. Perhaps only the public stoning of an equivalent personification of tabloid evil – Ian Huntley, say – could work them into a comparable lather as that which Gaddafi’s death did. However, as we ensure justice through the rule of law and stoning mercifully doesn’t feature amongst our laws, Huntley will never come to afford them such an opportunity. While even the notion that he might seems absurd and distasteful, Gaddafi’s demise doesn’t appear so removed from such an end. Yet few have dared suggest that there was anything distasteful about this death.

This apparent suspension of our senses of decency and appropriateness is troubling. If we believe in human rights, then we believe that they are held by all. We don’t deny them on the grounds of past conduct, no matter how appalling this conduct. We don’t concede that the desert soil is too arid for these rights to hold. That, after all, is the misconception that has held us back in the Arab world for too long.

We thought that freedom wasn’t for them. We thought that the rule of strongmen was just the way things go over there. We thought that they weren’t like us. But the Arab spring has shown that they are like us. They do want to be free. But freedom means the rule of law equally applied to all, including Gaddafi. Which is why if he was executed, this would have been an action that runs contrary to the best motives of the uprising against him. If this uprising was just about vengeance, then an execution is more apt. The uprising, however, was about more than this. It has been about justice.

This is justice for people as persecuted and done down as the characters in Alone in Berlin, the 1947 novel inspired by a true story of civil disobedience against the Nazi state. Only recently translated into English, it has been a remarkable success. Adam Freudenheim, publisher of Penguin classics, explains this success thus: “It asks, ‘What would you have done if you’d been there'”?

Gaddafi’s immiseration of the human spirit was intimately tied to the vanishingly small scope for resistance that he afforded his country people. The desperate truth is that many of us would have chosen our own survival over resistance had we lived in Gaddafi’s Libya. We can, consequently, only applaud the courage of those who did rise up against Gaddafi.

We shouldn’t, however, allow this applause to drown out other instincts. We need to know the truth of Gaddafi’s death. We must always remain above the mob and insist that freedom is about the rule of law. Otherwise we descend to the state of nature – where, famously, life is nasty, brutish and short – and not fully formed statehood.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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4 Responses to “Alone in Sirte”

  1. Roger says:

    ‘freedom is about the rule of law’.


    There are many profoundly unfree societies which nevertheless observe the rule of law.

    A key feature of the enlightenment was precisely the institution of a rule of law by absolute monarchs.

    And even in Nazi Germany where the leaders raged against legalism they continued to apply the principles of a Rechtstaat (at least to Aryan Germans) – look for instance at the very well documented fate of the White Rose resistance movement where the victims were tried, found guilty and executed following all the correct legal procedures inherited from the Weimar Republic and the Kaiserreich.

    ‘Alone in Berlin’ (BTW the American edition uses ‘Every Man Dies Alone’ which is a much better translation of the title) is also to a large degree written as a police procedural which very clearly delineates that to the police officer who is pursuing the heroes he is the one who is upholding the law.

    And after WW2 the same legal codes stripped of some but by no means all of the Nazi era legislation continued to apply in both West and East Germany and were enforced by the same judges and policemen (particularly in the West).

    But in any case Libya has never meaningfully lived under even the rule of law that characterises the more stable dictatorships – and to demand that rebels who have spent half a year fighting a brutal civil war against a monstrous tyrant should observe one is just ridiculous.

  2. aragon says:

    Gaddafi’s crimes against humanity were legion and public.

    This was a war zone.

    The Libyan people needed to know Gaddafi was not going to return.

    In these circumstances allowing Gaddafi to continue to live (and continue to be a rallying point) and grandstand was not in the Libyian public interest.

    For once it was more appropriate to execute Gaddafi rather than follow the due process of law.

    In general the due process of law needs to be followed, but there are very exceptional circumstances as recognised by the US in the case of Osama Bin Laden.

    It is only with Gaddafi’s death the page of history can be turned.

  3. swatantra says:

    I think we’ve all got better things to do than spend time on worrying about Gadaffi’s death. Lets just b thankful that the nightmare is officially over for the Libyan people. There’s the reconstruction to restore Libya to the glory that it once was, before Nato razed it to the ground with its airstrikes.

  4. Mike Homfray says:

    The concern is more whether those who are now armed continue to take the law into their own hands, or whether a trsansition to peaceful democratic rule has a chance

    It isn’t a good start

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