Libya faces a critical time ahead

Articles and op-ed

Kevin Rudd

Published in: The Australian

23 August 2011

There is ultimately something irrepressible about freedom.

For those who have argued that freedom, in particular political freedom, is limited to certain cultures, stages of economic development or particular times in history, they should have a long hard look at what the people of Libya are striving to achieve.

Twelve months ago, the nay-sayers were claiming that political freedom was impossible for a country governed by a dictatorship for the past two generations. The nay-sayers were also saying that freedom was not possible within the Arab world or, for that matter, in the wider Muslim world.

But if we reflect objectively on recent happenings in the Middle East, and before then in Indonesia, a stark reality confronts us: that people everywhere have a legitimate expectation that they should be able to select who governs them and expect that their government will ultimately be accountable to them.

Obviously people across the world will continue to say: That's all very well, but "better the devil you know"; and who knows what governments will replace the various military dictatorships that we, in the rest of the world, have adjusted to living with?

It is true, almost by definition, that there is much uncertainty associated with periods of political transition. But through a combination of patience, sound leadership and international support, democratic transformations can be entrenched.

The months ahead will be critical for Libya's political transformation. The truth is that the opposition forces who have been struggling against the regime are disparate and at times disorganised; indeed, there are some differences between those in Benghazi and the forces who have entered Tripoli. The challenges that confront them are immense.

A critical first decision for the National Transitional Council will be whether they require the international community to provide support to stabilise their transition.

It may be that the NTC believes that the immediate task of policing post-Gaddafi Libya can be handled by its own forces. But, if not, then the UN Security Council should be attentive to any formal request for a policing presence to maintain basic law, order and the protection of public and private property.The various European gendarmeries may well be best suited to this task should that arise.

Second, there is the question of Muammar Gaddafi and the key members of his family and regime. The International Criminal Court has already issued arrest warrants for three individuals for a range of offences under international humanitarian law. In the absence of Gaddafi having been provided a safe haven in a third country to avoid further bloodshed, a critical step would be for him and relevant regime members to be surrendered to the ICC for due process to occur.

Third, there is the immediate question of international humanitarian assistance to deal with the large number of displaced persons, to ensure that food, water, shelter, medical supplies and transport are provided in a co-ordinated fashion.

Fourth, there is the challenge of getting the Libyan economy back on track, in particular its oil and gas industry. Some of this infrastructure has been damaged, and the repair work will need to start as soon as possible.

Finally there is the critical question of democratic transformation. We all know this is easier said than done. If Libya asks for help, the international community must respond with the basic building blocks of properly conducted democratic elections, the constitutional entrenchment of political freedoms, the building of democratic institutions and the reform of the public service.

The Australian government was active from the beginning in calling on the Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. The truth is that, had the international community not acted, by now we would be holding seminars on why we failed to prevent the butchery of Benghazi by Gaddafi forces. Back then the armed uprising by the Libyan people was on the verge of being snuffed out by the regime. The Security Council acted and NATO gave the resolution effect.

Australia was not a military participant in this NATO-led operation, but we are proud of the fact that, as of today, we are the world's third largest contributor to the humanitarian needs of the Libyan people. And we will continue to be supportive of those needs through the international agencies into the future.

Australia has also been a participant on the international Contact Group on Libya, which has co-ordinated much of the work in support of the NTC. Australia will remain active in the Contact Group into the future. Remember, this was the vehicle through which the international community engaged with the NTC and provided a bridge between its core leadership and the international community on the practical needs of the Libyan people.

Furthermore, looking to the longer-term political and economic future of the country, there may well be practical areas in public administration, education or health where we can lend a hand through AusAID, the Australian Civilian Corps or Australian companies assisting with the rebuilding of the energy sector.

The worst thing the international community, including Australia, could do right now is to desert the Libyan people.

Were we to do so, that could radically undermine the prospects for political transformation in the country and provide a more conducive environment for political radicalisation to occur. Australia, as a responsible member of the international community, will play its part in building the new Libya into the future.

As events unfold in coming days and weeks, there will be many challenges. But the people of Libya have spoken and acted with great courage and deserve our support.

At the same time, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad should look at what is happening in Tripoli. Fundamental political change is needed in Damascus and Syria should prepare for a post-Assad future in the process.

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