“The death of a devil” A discussion with Adam Quinn and Matthew Hill

Dr. Adam Quinn is a Lecturer in International Studies at the University of Birmingham. Last Thursday he posted a comment on Facebook concerning the death of Gaddafi and the prospect that a UN-led investigation will lead to the prosecution of those that killed him.  We have reproduced that comment and the debate that followed, with contributions from myself and Dr. Matthew Hill, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, London. We think it highlights perennial themes of International Relations, including moralism, legalism, self-determination and realism. Let us know what you think. 

AQ: Reports say ‘some Libyans’ are ‘scoffing’ at suggestions by Amnesty International, among others, that we need an investigation into a prima facie war crime as a result of Gaddafi’s rough and ready execution. … Are we seriously suggesting that it would be appropriate to arrest, try and sentence the individuals involved in killing him?  Or the leaders of the provincial government for failing to prevent it? And if were aren’t prepared to follow the logic to that conclusion, why on earth launch down a road that so obviously leads there?  As so often the application of the legal mindset to issues almost exclusively political in nature leaves me half baffled half boggling.

MH: Irrespective of whether a state will act on a ‘universally’ constructed ethical norm, perhaps the point is that without reference to these constructed definitions of ethical normalcy, how can we measure what an individual, group or state does? Whilst governments may not give two hoots, would you rather not have people comment how an act may be unethical, illegal or immoral even though nothing can be done about it, than it not be questioned or reported?

AQ: I agree up to a point. But in this case I think I’d go further, and say that it’s not merely that there’s little chance of enforcing a ‘right’ decision, that it was illegal and should be punished, but rather that (a) my moral intuitions all run against punishing anyone for this rather than doing so, and (b) I think sometimes politics enters a sphere where legal principles aren’t only hard to apply but actually cease to be meaningful. That probably makes me sound a bit like Dick Nixon saying that ‘if the president does it it’s not illegal’, but I do think the place where issues cut free from the legal realm exists. We can still judge them by what standards we see fit – moral, strategic, political – but the language of ‘crime’, except as a form of condemnatory rhetoric, can’t adequately contain the issue.

JR: Adam, I have to disagree. You potentially construct a false dichotomy between law and politics. Law is of course a form of politics and often it is a much more subtle and effective one. You say you prefer a political approach but to what end? If it is the end of a stable Libya I’m not sure signalling support for mob rule helps. If it’s to make alliances with the most powerful mob because you want access to their oil then why bother overthrowing Gaddafi at the cost of adding 300million to the deficit? Presumably the cost in Libyan lives doesn’t count in the realist’s political jungle. I don’t think you’re sounding like Nixon. Nixon would probably have backed Gaddafi. You’re sounding like a neocon. Accept that your “friends” can violate the laws that you use to hold your “enemies” to account. Double standards. Imperialism. So what you might say? It doesn’t really help the west’s image in the Arab world does it? So in my opinion the west has every interest in being consistent and holding the NTC to its own rhetoric.

MH: Adam, why do your ‘moral intuitions all run against punishing anyone for this rather than doing so’? If this had happened in the UK, or some other state then we would expect legal recourse, and if a crime had been committed then the people should be tried in a court of law and if found guilty punished in accordance with that state’s laws. On a strategic level, from the perspective of outsiders such as France, UK or USA, a little wrongdoing (bloodletting, however you want to define it) to allow the new friends in Libya ‘stabilise’ the new order is not such a bad thing but there are a host of presumptions attached not least that it was unlikely Burke’s reign of terror would develop. The difficulty for me is which one trumps and which one should trump? And, if I’ve understood you correctly, this is what’s confusing me with your comment on ‘moral intuitions’. Is it your morality or something else that thinks these people should not be punished?

AQ: I only invoked the Nixon reference to make the point about a high political space existing above or outside the law, and even that probably wasn’t wise of me since he used it in such an infamously self-serving way. But you’re right that he would have had little time for the effort to depose Gaddafi, though that would put me on his team in at least that limited regard. At the outset, I was certainly against this adventure for all the reasons you might imagine for someone of my realist stripe: questionable necessity, cost, uncertain outcome, questionable credentials of alternative government; general dislike of treating foreign theatres as the site of morality plays between the black hats and the white hats. As things have – fortunately, apparently, and possibly temporarily – worked out well for this ‘splendid little war’, I’m rather relieved, but also worried that it might fuel enthusiasm for this sort of dubious adventurism in the future. Still, we’ve ended up on the winning side, and as a good realist I can see the value of that.

My starting point in our dealings with others these days tends to be an increasingly dated leaning towards sovereignty, or a desire to respect it more, for all its flaws, inconsistencies and ultimately socially constructed nature. We have our legitimate interests around the world, granted, and we certainly have our own political ideals and are free to voice them as loudly or quietly as we see fit. But when it comes to shooting and hanging people the less we do of it, directly or via proxies, in other peoples’ countries the happier I tend to be. I see it as best reserved as an emergencies-only option […]When it comes to civil wars, which is what this at base is, occurring entirely within national borders, I’m of the view that almost all bets (and gloves) are off and few rules apply between participants except those to which they are prepared to hold themselves. I’m not absolute on that: if someone starts building gas chambers, or orchestrating a countrywide genocide in the Rwandan style then I’ll sign on for drawing the line somewhere. But if there is, as suggested, an ‘evolving norm’ of humanitarian military intervention when it comes to the smaller stuff that in the pre-CNN-effect age used to be considered the rough and tumble of war, then I’m disposed to do what I can to oppose its evolving any farther. My reasons are realist ones: the limits of our own knowledge, capacity and resources; the hubris of our appointing ourselves arbiters for others when our own civil wars were so messy; the sneaking suspicion that a decisive win for one side may do everyone more favours in the long run than a frozen war relabelled as a negotiated solution. But one could characterise it as an anti-imperialist position if one was so disposed.

On the morality question, as I see it, what we have here is a man who ran Libya for four decades without reference to the rule of law, as a place where he could dispense death on a whim. What ultimately resulted was an uprising to overthrow him. If he was then gunned down by one of his own people, then I call that a case of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’. I’ll confess I even feel a kind of justice done by it that I would struggle to find while watching him deliver sermons from the Green Book in front of TV cameras in The Hague. In terms of how well it serves our interests to be seen as agents in this having happened, I agree: it raises troubling questions about how we may be seen by some. I very much wish that the same events could have unfolded without our involvement. But having gone as far as we have, having done all we’ve done to bring things to this pass, do we win moral credibility by turning around and ask for some guys on the front line to face trial for ‘murdering’ Gaddafi? I think on the contrary, I think we would shed it.

JR: I agree with the sentiment that Libya should not turn into a model for intervention and especially the point about the limitations of knowledge and power. You also raise a very important point about self-determination and the possibility that by criticizing the way the Libyans have fought the ground war we will be seen as too interventionist.  The British government has been at pains to stress that this is a legitimate intervention because it is merely assisting a homegrown revolution rather than imposing western values.  There is a risk of contradicting that by insisting on western standards of due process. But I don’t think that there’s a need to go to the other extreme and forget human rights standards. There are two considerations our government shouldn’t lose sight of. Firstly, the frontline is difficult (to say the least) but it’s not lawless. I certainly wouldn’t accept the argument that because Gaddafi lived by the sword we should forget the scales of justice; and I think the concern of dictators using trials to grandstand is overblown.  They invariably look silly when they do this and the political reputation of the courtroom is actually strengthened.  I’m relieved the NTC itself has seen it right to launch an investigation.  Indeed most of my anger these past few days was directed not at the NTC, which was in a difficult position, but at David Cameron who seemed to revel in the news by joking about “the death of a devil”.  He was in a very different context to the fighters on the ground. If he felt he couldn’t speak out for fear of negating Libyan self-determination then he should have just kept silent. That would have been the most statesmanlike thing to do. 

The second consideration we should keep in mind follows on from this: by appearing to side with the executioners (if that’s what they were) Cameron seemingly conflated jus ad bellum and jus in bello – i.e. because the NTC’s cause was just it gave them license to do anything to advance that cause, including executing a prisoner of war.  That maybe the kind of Neocon ethic that led us from ground zero, to Guantanamo to Iraq and Abu Ghraib and it is surely something Cameron has been desperate to avoid. This is not Iraq he kept telling us. If nothing else, he surely wants to avoid the embarrassment of this revolution turning into a tyranny and with that in mind I’d suggest he should not be seen celebrating mob rule.  

These things are always difficult and of course what happened last week is marginal to Libya’s and Cameron’s future. It will not be a talking point for long and the revolution will not be lost because of this. (I kept thinking of Causcescu’s demise and there were similar problems there but it’s hardly been relevant to Romania’s future). Likewise, my anger with Cameron is subsiding. It’s difficult to strike the correct balance between a commitment to the rule of law (both in the present and future) and the equally important goal of self-determination. He has been sensitive to this since the start.  It was his lack of sensitivity on that day that annoyed me. His government’s belated acceptance that this left the NTC ‘a little bit stained’ made him look like someone who changes direction with the political winds rather than someone that leads, which was not by all accounts the case at the start of the crisis.

AQ: If irritation with David Cameron’s demeanour (and perhaps indeed underlying shift in ideas) can be the source of a tentative partial consensus between us then I think that makes for excellent business. His turn-on-a-dime self-reinvention from intervention-sceptic to neocon-lite Blairite messiah complex has reinforced me still further in the view that a political leader who holds onto realist principles when a crisis and TV cameras come calling in tandem is one of the rarest things in democracy. I agree with those who say that by the time Gaddafi was at the gates of Benghazi ready for vengeance we needed to do something, even though I think the extent of our operations in Libya have made a mockery of the supposed law in the way they expanded the UN mandate to protect civilians to mean, effectively, waging war from the air to promote rebel victory. Useful verbal shield for intervention, certainly, but the kind of thing that gives cynics all the evidence they need that in the absence of an accepted judiciary the word of the law can stretch to suit whatever you feel like. To leave the Libyan rebels to their fate at that point would have made us look appalling, and possibly soured a whole generation of Arabs (another one) on the West; it would have been a replay of the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq in 1991. But as in that latter case, the question shouldn’t only be what our responsibilities were once we’d led people to march up the hill with our backing; it should be whether we ought to have given them the impression of support in the first place. To dust off my John Quincy Adams, I think we should be the well-wisher of freedom everywhere, but the vindicator only of our own. I back what we did as the best way through the situation we helped create. But we should try to create fewer such situations for ourselves.


About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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2 Responses to “The death of a devil” A discussion with Adam Quinn and Matthew Hill

  1. Jason Ralph says:

    These themes will no doubt be raised in the forthcoming roundtable on Ruti Teitel’s new book “Humanity’s Law” over at Opinio Juris — http://opiniojuris.org/2011/10/24/book-roundtable-ruti-teitels-humanitys-law

  2. Mark Kersten says:

    Thanks for sharing this conversation. I read it with great interest.

    I wonder, however, if a critical point is being missed when Dr. Quinn suggests that the anger amongst international observers is directed at not bringing Gaddafi’s killers to trial. I think, on the contrary, that the issue at hand for groups like Amnesty International and with individuals, like myself, who watched with deep concern at what happened to Gaddafi was much deeper. Gaddafi’s killing was, in my humble opinion, so concerning because 1. Gaddafi’s death is part of a trend (with Osama bin Laden and the increase in drone killings) where enemies are eliminated through killing and 2. that these killings are considered not only legitimate but also equated with “justice”.

    Surely, aside from bringing Gadddafi’s killers to justice, this trend is worth being concerned about, especially if what is at issue, as you have all suggested, is the relationship between politics and law.

    Many thanks again!


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