The end of talking in Libya

The end of talking in Libya

Not for the first time this morning, the International Criminal Court (ICC) changed the political calculations in an ongoing conflict. When Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo announced that he will request warrants for the arrest of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and a brother, Al-Sanousi, he sent a clear message to anyone who might have been tempted otherwise: No negotiations with the alleged war criminals. For Qaddafi this was no big change; governments of the Western and Arab worlds have already made it clear there’s no solution to this crisis that sees the Libyan leader still in power. But there was still some latent hope that Saif al-Islam could — maybe — work out a transition. Now it’s official: Saif is out. Actually, there pretty much no one left to negotiate with.

Interestingly, however, the United Nations has been doing exactly that — negotiating with the Libyan government to ensure humanitarian access to the besieged city of Misrata. Earlier this month, the U.N. aid chief, Valerie Amos, called for a ceasefire across the board, including NATO strikes, to let that agreement be honored. 

Humanitarians have always had to walk that tricky line — between getting the access they need to work and appeasing the aggressors. The ICC’s announcement will certainly complicate that already fraught task. True, the Qaddafi regime hadn’t shown many signs of actually honoring humanitarian pledges; after the agreement a few weeks ago, the military shelled Misrata pretty much non-stop.  Yet if there was any budge room, it’s gone now.

But what raises more questions in my head is the fact that an ICC warrant might actually entrench Qaddafi’s (and his son’s and brother’s) incentives to stay put. There will be no cushy exile, if that was ever in the cards in the first place. There will be no happy transition. It’s either this regime — and all its brutality — or nothing. Everything we know about the Qaddafis tells us that they will always choose the former over the latter.

Which means the strategic thinking behind these indictments may well be this: to encourage as many defections as possible now, before the warrants spread.