Reports from Libya Monday were sketchy and confused, but one conclusion appeared certain: The beleaguered dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi was waging war against its own people and committing atrocities that demand not just condemnation but action by the outside world. Al-Jazeera reported that warplanes had joined security forces in attacking anti-government demonstrators in the capital, Tripoli; human rights groups said hundreds had been killed in clashes in the country’s east. Libya’s own delegation to the United Nations described the regime’s actions as genocide and asked for international intervention.
The diplomats’ appeal was one indication that the Gadhafi regime was on the verge of collapse. Opposition forces were reported to be in control of the second-largest city, Benghazi, and some military units may have switched sides. The whereabouts of Mr. Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya with a cruel and erratic hand since 1969, were unknown. However, his son and presumed heir Seif al-Islam Gadhafi delivered a rambling and chilling speech early Monday in which he warned of civil war and vowed that “we will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.” On Monday, the regime appeared to be carrying out that threat.
Arab rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain all employed violence against their popular uprisings. But the actions of the Libyan regime are on a different scale. What is occurring in Tripoli and other cities is not only lethal repression but also crimes against humanity. The United States has used its influence to restrain such violence by allied governments, most recently in Bahrain. Now it should join with its allies in demanding that the Gadhafi regime be held accountable for its crimes.
The first way to do that is a public call for regime change. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that it was “time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed” in Libya; European leaders made similar statements. But the regime’s actions demand much more forceful action, including an immediate downgrading of relations and the raising of Libya’s case before the U.N. Security Council. The United States and the European Union should make clear that if the regime survives through violence, it will be subject to far-reaching sanctions, including on its oil industry.
Whether or not the Gadhafis remain in power, they should be brought to justice for the bloodshed they have caused. If a new government does not emerge in Libya, the Security Council should request that the International Criminal Court take up the case. Arab authoritarian regimes, and dictatorships around the world, must get the message that they cannot slaughter their own people with impunity.