Before leaving the G-20 meetings in Cannes, France, President Obama joined with French President Sarkozy to pay tribute to the two countries’ alliance and celebrate the successful intervention in Libya that ended the rule of Moammar Gadhafi.
“Every man and woman in uniform who participated in this effort can know that you have accomplished every objective,” Obama said. “Today, the Libyan people have liberated their country and begun to forge their own future.”
Obama, who launched the Libyan mission amid widespread Republican criticism, had good reasons to greet Gadhafi’s overthrow with relief. And all hope that democracy can take root. But once the U.S. intervenes in an internal foreign dispute, we bear greater responsibility for the outcome. Before the “war of choice” on Iraq, former Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President Bush about the “Pottery Barn rule: If you break it, you own it.”
That’s why the U.S. and its allies must respond to the credible reports of terrible violence being wreaked on dark-skinned Libyans by the victors. According to Human Rights Watch, “It is a dangerous time to be dark-skinned in Tripoli.” Reports abound that black Libyans are being subjected to beatings, torture, rape, killings–and, in several instances, horrific public lynchings.
Racism in Libya has a long and complex history but has grown fierce since the uprising against Gadhafi began in February. Under Gadhafi, foreign workers accounted for about one quarter of Libya’s 6 million population. Most came from Africa, poor immigrants seeking jobs in Libya’s oil, agriculture or other sectors. They live predominantly in the southern part of the country and many were naturally loyal to Gadhafi.
Now towns like Tawergha in the southern region previously loyal to Gadhafi are reported to be ghost towns, with entire populations having “disappeared.” The revolutionaries claim that many of those arrested or killed were “mercenaries” hired by Gadhafi to defend the regime. While some, no doubt, fought on Gadhafi’s side, independent analysts say the rumors about mercenaries are wildly exaggerated and are used as an excuse for trampling rights.
Libya’s National Transitional Council has denied the allegations, telling the U.N. Human Rights Council: “We do not make any distinction among people on grounds of color.” But independent organizations like Amnesty International confirm the reports that refugees and other dark-skinned Libyans are filling detention centers, with allegations of torture widespread.
The U.S. and its allies intervened in the Libyan conflict on the basis of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1975, which called for the international community to use all necessary means to protect civilians. The abuse and ethnic cleansing of dark-skinned people mock that authority.
It is vital that there be an immediate United Nations investigation of the reports of ethnic cleansing and violence against dark-skinned people in Libya. The allied nations should work with the new authorities in Libya to strengthen the rule of law, stop ethnic violence and end human rights abuses. The Obama administration should independently investigate the atrocities and bring international attention to the situation.
No one knows what comes next in Libya. But the United States and the other NATO allies involved in the intervention are not simply onlookers. They can’t simply celebrate the end of Gadhafi regime. They bear responsibility, in part, for what comes next–and cannot stand silently by as racial division becomes deadly.