The International Criminal Court's decision to issue arrest warrants for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi may send a strong message to abusive leaders, but it could not come at a worse time for efforts to rid Libya of their long-standing dictator.
It is a nod to justice at a terrible time, a decision that is likely to ensure that Col. Muammar Qaddafi will not be stepping down and seeking exile in a foreign land any time soon.
It also means that the civil war now raging in Libya is likely to continue, along with the suffering of the Libyan civilians whom President Barack Obama intervened almost three months ago to save from massacre and other human rights abuses.
At its home in The Hague, Netherlands, ICC Judge Sanji Mmasenono Monageng of Botswana read the arrest warrants not only for Qaddafi, but also for his son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, who until the Arab Spring uprising was viewed by many diplomats and Libyans alike as a reformer, and for Qaddafi's brother-in-law Abdullah al-Sanussi, who is Libya's longstanding intelligence chief. The three-judge panel found "reasonable grounds" to believe that the three suspects committed "crimes against humanity," including the murder and persecution of dissidents within Libya from Feb. 15 through "at least" Feb. 28," the court said in a news release.
Although Libyan rebels in Benghazi and Misrata cheered the news, this is the kind of "feel good" gesture that will complicate efforts to mediate an end to Libya's power struggle and its people's suffering.
The court does not have enforcement power, and neither Libya – nor the United States, for that matter – recognizes its jurisdiction. But if Qaddafi travels to any of the 116 states that are parties to the Rome Statute, which established its jurisdiction, those states are required to arrest him and turn him over to the court in the Hague. This means that even Uganda and Venezuela and other states whose leaders have expressed sympathy for the Libyan leader and might be willing to host him in exile, cannot do so because they are members of the court. So even in the unlikely event that Col. Qaddafi and his once heir-apparent son decided to seek exile, they would have almost no place to go.
It is no secret that the Obama administration has been working quietly to try to find a country that would host the erratic Libyan leader, whose state visits have usually required an empty expanse of land where Qaddafi could literally pitch a luxury tent as part of his "simple Bedouin," "son of the desert" act. Now in light of the court's arrest warrants, a retirement home in Florida might be one of the few safe destinations that President Obama can legally offer the demented dictator.
This is not the first time that the court has engaged in such judicial grand-standing. In 2007, it issued a similar arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for his alleged genocide and other crimes against humanity in his country's Darfur region in western Sudan. But Gen. Bashir is alive if not well, but not even trapped in the Sudan. He was scheduled to make a visit to China this week, which has offered to host him despite the court arrest warrant.
Other dictators under pressure have been eased out partly because their own countries and the international community were pragmatic enough to find a way to persuade them to yield power.
Tunisia's long-serving dictator, ex president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, for one, fled to Saudi Arabia, which continues to offer him exile despite the fact that a Tunisian court recently found him and his wife guilty in absentia on charges of embezzling state funds and sentenced him to 35 years in prison and a fine of roughly $66 million.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also stepped down in favor of "internal" exile in Sham el Sheikh, a relatively quick end to the uprising which nonetheless cost over 800 lives of Egyptian protesters.
But Mubarak may now be in danger, as protesters have demanded, and the military has ostensibly agreed to let the former president, who has been ailing and hospitalized, stand tried for alleged corruption and the killing of dissidents later this summer.
Some have argued that the ICC's action is likely to increase Qaddafi's international isolation. After all, they argue, even China and Russia voted to approve the ICC investigation of the Libyan leader's actions. But Michael Rubin, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in Washington D.C. argues that the court's action gives Qaddafi no option other than to "fight to the death." The decision, he has been quoted as saying, was emblematic of what he called "the dirty underside of international law." While the court can "chatter about their commitment to international law, the fact of the matter is their action takes off the table any possibility that Qaddafi could flee to a retirement haven outside Libya."