Does it really matter if Qaddafi was executed?

As videos and various accounts emerge of the violent final minutes of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s life — which certainly looks to be a summary execution — international organizations from the United Nations to Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch are issuing statements calling for an investigation into the circumstances of his death. Human Rights Watch writes, ...

As videos and various accounts emerge of the violent final minutes of Muammar al-Qaddafi's life -- which certainly looks to be a summary execution -- international organizations from the United Nations to Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch are issuing statements calling for an investigation into the circumstances of his death.

Human Rights Watch writes, in a carefully pitched statement that first calls for accountability for crimes committed under Qaddafi's 42-year reign, writes, "The council should also investigate the circumstances leading to the death of Gaddafi, including whether he was killed while in detention, which would constitute a serious violation of the laws of war. Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to set up an internationally supervised autopsy to establish Gaddafi's cause of death. "

We're also seeing a lot of pious commentary about how if Libya's transitional government doesn't get to the bottom of what happened, it's a troubling sign of its commitment to democracy, etc., etc.

As videos and various accounts emerge of the violent final minutes of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s life — which certainly looks to be a summary execution — international organizations from the United Nations to Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch are issuing statements calling for an investigation into the circumstances of his death.

Human Rights Watch writes, in a carefully pitched statement that first calls for accountability for crimes committed under Qaddafi’s 42-year reign, writes, "The council should also investigate the circumstances leading to the death of Gaddafi, including whether he was killed while in detention, which would constitute a serious violation of the laws of war. Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to set up an internationally supervised autopsy to establish Gaddafi’s cause of death. "

We’re also seeing a lot of pious commentary about how if Libya’s transitional government doesn’t get to the bottom of what happened, it’s a troubling sign of its commitment to democracy, etc., etc.

All of this is no doubt well-intentioned, and yes, in an ideal world the Brother Leader would have been duly brought to trial and prosecuted in a fair and transparent process that brought healing to the victims of his regime. But that’s not what happened, it probably wouldn’t have happened, and ultimately it may not matter much.

For one thing, the entire war was pretty much a legal farce to begin with. The U.N. Security Council resolution enabling it called for countries to take action to protect civilians — and yet NATO stretched that definition to the breaking point, more or less functioning as close air support for rebel fighters. France, Qatar, and the UAE sent weapons. Sometimes NATO’s contortions on this matter reached the level of farce, like the rationale a senior officer provided the LA Times Thursday about striking Qaddafi’s convoy: "Those vehicles seemed to be directing the actions of the others, and they were struck. For all we know it could have been a lower-level leader." Ha, ha.

Furthermore, as Shashank Joshi notes, the real issue to worry about in Libya right now isn’t some kind of fanciful, abstract notion of the rule of law — that’s a long way off, clearly — it’s whether the transitional government can get control of the dozens of militias that sprang up spontaneously to fight Qaddafi. (Though, given that it was a Misratan brigade that probably whacked the Brother Leader and dragged him through the streets of town, it’s admittedly hard to separate that vital issue from Qaddafi’s killing.)

So, am I troubled by the manner of Qaddafi’s death? Yes. But it’s not realistic to expect people that have been ruled for four decades by a brutal tyrant — who left no institutions left behind and called his people "rats" as he vowed to hunt them down "alley by alley"– to behave like Western democrats when they finally catch him. Far more important than getting to the bottom of Qaddafi’s end is stabilizing the country itself and standing up a legitimate government as soon as possible.

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