Part of the Problem or the Solution? MSF in Libya

MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières), commonly referred to as Doctors without Borders, is a highly respected, politically independent, humanitarian aid organisation. It is admired for its large-scale international emergency relief programmes in humanitarian crises such as civil wars, natural disasters and epidemics. However, in the recent conflict in Libya in January 2012, allegations against the organization suggest its complicity with the practice of torture against Gaddafi loyalists. This has attracted international attention and has highlighted the ongoing human rights violations and killings committed by the new Libyan government and vengeful rebels.

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MSF pledges to provide emergency medical aid to any human being irrespective of their religious, ideological, political or ethnic background (MSF website). This is fundamentally a morally honourable intention (even though it could be cynically argued that providing medical aid on both sides of the conflict in a civil war, just actively prolongs the war and is indeed morally questionable). However, in Libya MSF was treating tortured detainees who were sent to the aid organization in the midst of cruel interrogation sessions for the sole purpose of making them fit for continued, increasingly degrading and cruel treatment (MSF, January 2012). MSF was faced with the dilemma of either focusing on saving human lives by attempting to cure the victims, but thereby preparing them to be tortured over again, or to stop treating those patients while being aware that this would probably have fatal consequences. After the publication of an investigation report by Amnesty International (Amnesty International, January 2012), drawing attention to the systematic Human Rights abuses conducted by the new Libyan government against Gaddafi supporters, MSF responded by strongly urging authorities to immediately terminate physical and psychological harm against their political opponents. According to the Amnesty account: “Detainees, both Libyan and foreign nationals from sub-Saharan African countries, told Amnesty International they had been suspended in contorted positions, beaten for hours with whips, cables, plastic hoses, metal chains, bars and wooden sticks, and given electric shocks with live wires and Taser-like electro-shock weapons.” (Amnesty International, January 2012). Sub-Saharan labourers, who are under the radar of the new rebel regime and are being discriminated against as they are accused of having supported Gaddafi, were frequent victims. Medical specialists confirmed that there was sufficient evidence of this and that their claims were indeed substantially true. The bodies showed injuries including “open wounds on the head, limbs, back and other parts of the body.”  The victims further stated that the torture is state-controlled and is mainly carried out by armed militias (Amnesty International, January 2012).

 The Libyan government answered immediately by denying any such accusation and insisting that they were not aware of any torture of Gaddafi supporters, and if it did occur, they were definitely not initiated or authorized by the government (SNE, January 2012). As the repeated warnings did not suffice to stop the practice, MSF finally decided to pull out and focus their efforts on other sites within the country where their help was also desperately needed, but less controversial. Mr Stokes justified their retreat on behalf of MSF: “When you patch people up and then they get taken back to be tortured again in the same evening, you become part of the process” (MSF, January 2012). The decision to retreat was critically observed by the judgmental eye of the international community, in particular by western spectators.

The organized vengeance killings of Gaddafi loyalists are still being perpetrated by rebel militias today. (Human Rights Watch Report 16th October 2012). Thousands are being tortured and killed. After a nine month power struggle, the rebels are now seeking revenge for the harm they have experienced at the hands of Gaddafi’s forces in the armed uprising. The lack of a functioning legal system enables the rebel regime to hold suspects captive in a sphere free from legal obligations. According to an April 2012 Journeyman Pictures report, torture is quite common and thousands of people are being detained in small provisional prisons without even knowing what they are being charged for or how long they will be kept there.

The torture allegations are very embarrassing for western governments, institutions and individual supporters who were convinced they were aiding the oppressed Libyan rebels in their quest to make the country a more democratic state by freeing them from the autocratic dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. Notice of the torture cases came as a shock especially to the United Kingdom, which invested over 320 million pounds of their military spending on the operation in Libya (House of Commons Report, July 2012). The very people they supported who promised they would install a political order based on civil liberties in Libya were now busy carrying out merciless Human Rights violations themselves. The recent failure of the American government to protect their ambassador has brought shame on the American government and other western governments for having backed the rebels during the overthrow of the regime in 2011. One might suggest that the international community has thus become more hesitant to launch an intervention in Syria.

The vital question is: Do we need more intervention or less? Will Libya successfully manage the transition from the rule of gun to the rule of law on its own or do we need strong jus post bellum measures to reconstruct the political and social system into a democratic regime? Well, has the new Libyan government kept its promises so far or at least attempted to do so? Libya is facing inflation, food and fuel prices are up, poverty and homelessness is widespread, and human rights violations are rife. It does not seem that the new Libyan government has dealt with its challenges particularly well. We will see how the country will develop in the years to come.

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