Austin Bay

On Aug. 26, Amnesty International charged that guards loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi murdered scores of prisoners at two military camps inside Tripoli. The human rights organization based its claim on interviews with detainees who escaped the slaughter.

Other media have reported hundreds of civilians dead in Tripoli's streets and in government compounds scattered throughout the city. StrategyPage.com, assessing the grim testimony, concluded that Gadhafi's soldiers and secret police "apparently had orders to kill all rebels, including prisoners."

Yes, that is very likely -- for Gadhafi it is business as usual.

Evidence of war crimes, like that gathered by Amnesty International, will be presented to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In June, the ICC issued criminal warrants for Gadhafi, his son, Saif, and the regime's intelligence chief, Abdallah al-Sanussi.

Diplomats have good reason to question the utility of issuing ICC warrants during wartime. The charges may limit options for a negotiated settlement, such as exile of the dictator in lieu of further war. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty take the position that deals negotiated with murderers like Gadhafi "make a mockery of international law." Again, that point is open to debate, especially if life-wasting and city-destroying combat ceases when the tyrant runs to Venezuela.

As for investigation and prosecution after the war -- that is another matter. For most Iraqis, Saddam Hussein's trial proved cathartic, and he got a fair trial.

The reports of mass murder do provide further justification for international military intervention on behalf of the rebels. Anyone familiar with Gadhafi's long record of terror, theft, torture and war-making knew that a Gadhafi victory over the rebels would mean mass executions and mass gravesites. Moreover, a Gadhafi win would have told the world that violent subjugation works.

Aware of Gadhafi's bloody track record, NATO, under the aegis of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, entered the war to protect civilians from the tyrant's depredations. Of course, that politically noble objective ultimately required a policy condemned by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008: regime change.

Obama, to his credit, said, "Gadhafi must go," and Obama is close to achieving his aim. And although Gadhafi hasn't gone -- not quite yet -- his immediate family has reportedly fled to Algeria.

In a press conference on Aug. 25, Abdel Jalil, head of the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council (TNC), said that he believed the war has killed over 20,000 Libyans since it began in mid-February. No one knows for certain. Rebel fighters argue -- with mixed emotions, given their own suffering and the suffering they have witnessed -- whether or not toppling Gadhafi is still worth the terrible price.

Simple but grisly mathematics provides a sobering perspective on the loss of life. Libya has a population of 6.3 million. For the moment, accept the TNC estimate of 20,000 dead. That means approximately 0.32 percent of Libya's population has died in the war. The comparable death toll for the United States, with a population of 307 million, is 982,000.

How many Libyans have been killed by Gadhafi's forces? How many died at rebel hands or in NATO air attacks? We don't know yet; initial Iraq war estimates -- many issued to promote a political agenda -- proved to be inflated. Eventually, someone in Libya will produce an accurate accounting.

How many people would Gadhafi have murdered if he had won? Thanks to the rebel victory, that dark number will remain a matter of speculation.

To see a video breaking down the events of the war in Libya, go to http://bit.ly/q5K23L.


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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