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“We Came! We Saw! He Died!”: Reflections On Libya

By Prof. Francis A. Boyle

29 February, 2016

I have unique experience in Libya. To the best of my knowledge, during the 1980s I was perhaps the only American professor to spend a significant amount of time in Libya because of the serial armed hostilities and the imposition of draconian travel prohibitions and economic sanctions inflicted by the Reagan administration. I spent a sum total of four weeks in Libya on three different trips.

In 1985 Libya invited me to conduct a week-long lecture tour and visit. I lectured at universities in Tripoli and Benghazi. I also lectured live on Libyan national television from their studio in Tripoli, and some of my public lectures were broadcasted by Libyan television.

During my first trip to Libya, I spent an entire day visiting their museum dedicated to the documentation of the Holocaust that had been perpetrated upon them by Italy. In 1911 Italy had attacked and invaded the territory we now call Libya and proceeded to occupy it until toward the end of the Second World War. During this period of time (1912-1943), Italy exterminated somewhere “between 250,000 and 300,000” Libyans out of a population of somewhere “between 800,000 and 1 million at the time.” About one-third of all Libyans. In proportional terms, this approached the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. Of course Italy also exterminated Jews and Ethiopians as well as Libyans. These victims included the Italian murder of Libya’s acclaimed national liberation hero and martyr, Omar Muktar.

At their request, I would later advise Libya on how to sue Italy over its colonization and outright genocide perpetrated against the Libyans. Protracted negotiations between Libya and Italy eventually led to a settlement of those claims that was concluded between Colonel Qaddafi and Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi in 2008, providing for a $5 billion dollar compensation package to be transferred to Libya over twenty years. This token sum was a mere pittance compared to the actual number of human deaths and the amount of physical destruction that Italy had inflicted upon Libya. Nevertheless, that agreement was treacherously repudiated by Berlusconi during the course of his 2011 war against Libya. Berlusconi’s illegal and despicable act has re-opened Libya’s claims for colonization and genocide against Italy.

During my first trip to Libya, I was surprised to see that women were free and empowered to do anything they wanted all over the country. I asked my government-provided translator about this. He advised: “Qaddafi decreed that women are equal to men. The old men don’t like it. But there is nothing they can do about it.” As I can attest from my three trips to Libya, under Qaddafi women held up half the sky in that country. I doubt very seriously that the 2011 US/NATO war will advance the cause of women in Libya. Indeed, Libyan women could very well retrogress from Qaddafi’s days as, undoubtedly, will the general well being of the Libyan population from its standing in the 2010 UN Human Development Index.

In 1987 I returned to Libya for another two weeks after the Reagan administration had bombed Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 and attempted to murder the entire Qaddafi family sleeping in their home at night. I visited all the bombing sites in the Metropolitan Tripoli area and had a tour of the bombed-out Qaddafi home. I then had a meeting with Colonel Qaddafi in his tent where we discussed what happened to him and his family on the night of the bombing. Qaddafi was a Bedouin from the desert, so he liked to meet guests and conduct business in a pitched tent. It was a practice which he carried out even on travel to the U.N. in New York, for which he was generally ridiculed—though in actuality it represented his determination to maintain his cultural identity, symbolic of his ongoing commitment to his people, rather than to the imperial west.

At the end of that meeting I agreed with Colonel Qaddafi to work with former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark on filing lawsuits in United States federal courts over the bombings against President Reagan, Secretary of Defense Weinberger, Director of the C.I.A. Casey, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Commander of NATO, the Commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who gave permission to Reagan to use a U.K. base where U.S. bombers were stationed to bomb Libya–together with suing both the United States and the United Kingdom. We lost. Two lawyers against two empires.

In June of 1988 I returned to Libya as their guest in order to attend the session of their Basic Popular Congress meeting in Beida for the adoption of the Great Green Charter for Peace and Human Rights. Interestingly enough, Colonel Qaddafi proposed to abolish the death penalty for Libya. But the Basic Popular Congress rejected his humanitarian initiative: Democracy in action! While there I also provided commentary to C.B.S. Evening News about what precisely was going on and its significance for promoting human rights internally

Over the years, I would routinely give interviews to Western news media sources about Libya and the prospects for the United States government to overthrow Colonel Qaddafi. I always pointed out that the American government should be careful of what it wished for: Instead of installing a C.I.A. stooge, the United States could get a fundamentalist religious leader sitting on top of Libya’s oil fields and occupying that strategic piece of real estate in North Africa and on the southern rim of the Mediterranean right next to Egypt. Colonel Qaddafi’s foremost opponents had always been Libya’s Muslim fundamentalists who detested him for (1) his secular-nationalist rule deliberately modeled upon his hero and role model, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser; (2) his liberation and empowerment of Libyan women; and (3) Qaddafi’s Green Book that tried to carve-out a third way between capitalism and communism that was consistent with Islam, but which they nevertheless considered to be heretical. For the most part, Libyans constitute a moderate Sunni Muslim population. Yet in order to overthrow Qaddafi in 2011, the U.S. and NATO states worked hand-in-glove with Libyan and foreign Muslim fundamentalists including elements of Al Qaeda and Salafists. Somalia on the Med, anyone?

After the Bush Senior administration came to power, in late 1991 they opportunistically accused Libya of somehow being behind the 1988 bombing of the Pan American jet over Lockerbie, Scotland. I advised Libya on this matter from the very outset. Indeed, prior thereto I had predicted to Libya that they were going to be used by the United States government as a convenient scapegoat over Lockerbie for geopolitical reasons.

Publicly sensationalizing these allegations, in early 1992 President Bush Senior then mobilized the U.S. Sixth Fleet off the coast of Libya on hostile aerial and naval maneuvers in preparation for yet another military attack exactly as the Reagan administration had done repeatedly throughout the 1980s. I convinced Colonel Qaddafi to let us sue the United States and the United Kingdom at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over the Lockerbie bombing allegations; to convene an emergency meeting of the World Court; and to request the Court to issue the international equivalent of temporary restraining orders against the United States and the United Kingdom so that they would not attack Libya again as they had done before. After we had filed these two World Court lawsuits, President Bush Senior ordered the Sixth Fleet to stand down. There was no military conflict between the United States and Libya. There was no war. No one died. A tribute to international law, the World Court, and its capacity for the peaceful settlement of international disputes.

Pursuant to our World Court lawsuits, in February of 1998 the International Court of Justice rendered two Judgments against the United States and the United Kingdom that were overwhelmingly in favor of Libya on the technical, jurisdictional and procedural elements involved in these two cases. It was obvious from reading these Judgments that at the end of the day Libya was going to win its World Court lawsuits against the United States and the United Kingdom over the substance of their Lockerbie bombing allegations. These drastically unfavorable World Court Judgments convinced the United States and the United Kingdom to offer a compromise proposal to Libya whereby the two Libyan nationals accused by the U.S. and the U.K. of perpetrating the Lockerbie bombing would be tried before a Scottish Court sitting in The Hague, the seat of the World Court. Justice was never done. This book tells the inside story of why not.

When the US/NATO war began against Libya in March of 2011, Colonel Qaddafi immediately disappeared underground, fearing yet another Western attempt to murder him and his family, which later happened. I spent several months engaged in fruitless efforts to get into contact with Colonel Qaddafi to obtain his authorization for filing lawsuits at the International Court of Justice in The Hague against the United States and the NATO states in order to stop their bombing campaign against Libya. All to no avail.

Colonel Qaddafi fought and died for Libya against the West just like his hero Omar Mukhtar had done. Indeed, on the basis of that precedent, I had predicted that Qaddafi would fight to the death for Libya and not flee his country in order to save his own life. Far exceeding my expectations, Colonel Qaddafi resisted the most powerful military alliance ever assembled in the history of the world for seven months. A real modern-day Hannibal!

Colonel Qaddafi ruled Libya like the traditional Arab Shaikh of a Bedouin tribe. Indeed, Libya as a state consisted of an amalgamation of disparate Arab and Tuareg tribes that Qaddafi had melded together into his Jamahiriya system, a state of the masses. The jury is still out on whether or not this now discombobulation of tribes living in Libya can ever be reconstituted as a functioning state after the U.S./NATO war. Libya stands on the verge of a statehood crack-up, as was the U.S./N.A.T.O. intention from the get-go.

Today Libya reminds me of the well-known children's nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty back together again.

Professor Francis A. Boyle, University of Illinois College of Law, served as Legal Adviser to the PLO and Chairman Yasser Arafat on the 15 November 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence and as legal adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace negotiations and its chair Dr. Haidar Abdul Shaffi from 1991 to 1993. His books include Palestine, Palestinians, and International Law (2003) and The Palestinian Right of Return under International Law (2011).



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