The UN must act to fill a Libyan power vacuum
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, visiting Egypt this week, tweeted that it was “inspiring standing in Tahrir Square with young people who stood up for democracy in Egypt”.
Mr Rudd’s sentiments are shared across the world. It’s very hard not to be inspired by the way in which the Egyptian people have claimed control of their own future. Just a month ago, even as pressure on Hosni Mubarak mounted, very few people would have predicted such a speedy and relatively smooth transition of power.
Certainly the Egyptian example has inspired similar uprisings against neighbouring dictators, most notably Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. However, those who expect a similarly speedy and successful resolution of the conflict in that country are likely to be shocked by what is about to unfold in Libya.
Intelligence coming from Australian emergency management providers on the ground in Libya, including personnel from my company Dynamiq, indicates this conflict will be much more akin to what took place in Bosnia than to recent events in Egypt.
Even if Gaddafi is removed from office, that will not lead to the same positive outcomes that the world has hailed in Egypt. All indications from Libya are that the fall of the current regime would lead to splintering of various regions, possible descent into civil war and the likely breakdown of the state.
As my staff have made their way into Libya in recent weeks, to support Australian journalists and aid organisations, they have encountered a large-scale exodus of citizens into Egypt. This can partly be explained by the new-found freedom being enjoyed by the Egyptian people, but it can also be seen as a clear sign that the Libyan people do not expect the same happy ending. There are similar flights of people into Tunisia.
Dynamiq’s Australian staff in Libya made their way into the Gaddafi Compound in Bengazi overnight, while supporting Australian journalists. What they saw was a telling symbol of things to come in Libya. The compound is empty, vandalised and, most troublingly, the armoury has been emptied of its weapons.
Debate is growing at the moment about whether the international community should intervene more strongly in Libya, to force the removal of the dictator Gaddafi and possibly to bring him before the international courts over human rights abuses.
These are worthy debates, but the community of nations needs to be turning its attention to the longer term. The removal of Gaddafi – whether it happens sooner or later and with or without international help – will almost certainly create a power vacuum in Libya.
The United Nations needs to be prepared to fill that vacuum, and quickly. Not only must it meet the immediate needs of refugees, but it must also provide a presence on the ground in Libya to ensure the security and other machinery of the state continues to function.
If the international community sits on its hands after the removal of Gaddafi, it will be faced with a re-run of the widespread savagery seen in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If that occurs, it will take a much larger international force working for years to bring the situation back under control than would be the case with early and decisive action.
If the global community is too slow to act, Foreign Ministers such as Mr Rudd visiting Tripoli at some point in the future would far less likely to be on Twitter talking of the “inspiring” scenes that have unfolded.
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