Remember the time when Libya was being held up by the American, British, French and Qatari governments as a striking example of benign and successful foreign intervention? It is worth looking again at film of David Cameron grandstanding as liberator in Benghazi in September 2011 as he applauds the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and tells the crowd that “your city was an example to the world as you threw off a dictator and chose freedom”.
Mr Cameron has not been back to Benghazi, nor is he likely to do so as warring militias reduce Libya to primal anarchy in which nobody is safe. The majority of Libyans are demonstrably worse off today than they were under Gaddafi, notwithstanding his personality cult and authoritarian rule. The slaughter is getting worse by the month and is engulfing the entire country.
“Your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your democracy,” pledged Mr Cameron to the people of Benghazi. Three years later, they are words he evidently wants to forget, since there was almost no reference to Libya, the one military intervention he had previously ordered, when he spoke in the House of Commons justifying British airstrikes against Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq.
The foreign media has largely ceased to cover Libya because it rightly believes it is too dangerous for journalists to go there. Yet I remember a moment in the early summer of 2011 in the frontline south of Benghazi when there were more reporters and camera crews present than there were rebel militiamen. Cameramen used to ask fellow foreign journalists to move aside when they were filming so that this did not become too apparent. In reality, Gaddafi’s overthrow was very much Nato’s doing, with Libyan militiamen mopping up.
Human rights organisations have had a much better record in Libya than the media since the start of the uprising in 2011. They discovered that there was no evidence for several highly publicised atrocities supposedly carried out by Gaddafi’s forces that were used to fuel popular support for the air war in the US, Britain, France and elsewhere. These included the story of the mass rape of women by Gaddafi’s troops that Amnesty International exposed as being without foundation. The uniformed bodies of government soldiers were described by rebel spokesmen as being men shot because they were about to defect to the opposition. Video film showed the soldiers still alive as rebel prisoners so it must have been the rebels who had executed them and put the blame on the government.
Foreign governments and media alike have good reason to forget what they said and did in Libya in 2011, because the aftermath of the overthrow of Gaddafi has been so appalling. The extent of the calamity is made clear by two reports on the present state of the country, one by Amnesty International called “Libya: Rule of the gun – abductions, torture and other militia abuses in western Libya” and a second by Human Rights Watch, focusing on the east of the country, called “Libya: Assassinations May Be Crimes Against Humanity”.