The War on Libya: Behind Appearances – Part 2

November 23, 2011 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In the aftermath of the rebel victory, the news media has mostly moved on from Libya. But many questions remain about the background to the civil war and its beginnings, which would not be asked by reporters focusing on the frenzied violence between rebel and loyalist forces at the time. Very little substantive analysis surfaced in the numerous newpaper articles and television reports. Instead, as with Iraq, we were once again pulled into the all-consuming images of war presented to us from a certain perspective. If there was ever a case of how little the public knew about a country targeted for war, Libya was it. The rapid unfolding of events mainly followed the plight of the rebels as we watched them either advance towards key towns like Ras Lanuf and Brega, or were repelled back by Gaddafi’s forces. It was another case of the speed of events overtaking the availability of analysis, where basic information on the country was only minimally provided in terms of its history, geography, cultural, economic and political background. Questions were raised faster than the piecemeal explanations provided to explain them. Meanwhile, as oil production in Libya was drastically reduced due to the fighting around major refinery sites, the price per barrel of oil rose in the world’s markets. The haste towards military intervention in Libya implied the need to end Gaddafi’s regime as quickly as possible. At stake, for all parties involved, was the coveted prize of Libya’s high quality, ‘sweet crude’. There was also the need to topple Gaddafi who was perceived as a rogue element in the region of North Africa; someone who had set into motion an independent economic course for Libya and the African continent that rivaled the hegemonic interests of the West. These were the real reasons behind the US/NATO involvement with Libya, despite the consistent rhetoric of ‘promoting democracy’ and the overthrow of ‘tyrants’, when yesterday’s friends become today’s enemies in ever shorter time frames.

The Human Rights Record

It is clear that Gaddafi, despite officially removing himself as the head of government-he never used the words ‘president’ or ‘ prime minister’ to describe his political status–nevertheless solidified his control over society through state policing structures, specifically the Internal Security Agency, and the military. Early on after the 1969 revolution installing Colonel Gaddafi into power, the Arab Socialist Union’s Law #71 banning political parties was put into effect; a short-cut strategy designed to negate any opposition associated with the previous regime.

According to a 2010 Amnesty International report, ‘routine abuses’ by the Libyan authorities occurred from the 1970s to the 1990s [1]. What this means in terms of numbers is still hard to determine. Based on a visit to the country in 2009, the Amnesty report complains of the constant presence of ‘minders’ in their investigations into prison conditions yet also mentions government cooperation in allowing interviewers to be alone with prisoners. This same Amnesty International report mentions that there was no response from the government when handed a list of two-hundred individuals arrested after 1989, as well as no response to the disappearance of three dissidents in Cairo in the 1990s. There were reported public hangings of dissidents, on several occasions.

But the biggest human rights story constantly brought up by the media in connection with Gaddafi was the ‘massacre’ at the Abu Salim prison. It was said that in June of 1996, a prison riot had broken out over conditions there and that 1,200 detainees had been ‘extrajudicially executed’ in the prison yard by guards. The families of these victims, it was said, were seeking recognition of and redress for their murders. The uprising in Benghazi was said to have started because of the arrest of the dissident ‘civil rights’ attorney in that city, Fathi Terbil, who was representing the families of the Abu Salim prisoners. But problems arise when trying to verify the sources of these accusations. As some websites have pointed, out there are only two material witnesses, with those witnesses not actually seeing the shooting of the inmates, as well as there being no evidence in respect to bodies seen or any remains. Media coverage accepted the story of the massacre without question, with claims by the rebels that mass graves had been found around the Abu Salim prison site reported as physical fact, when remains of the victims were not actually found [2]. There has been a call for forensic scientists to investigate the site. This should determine the validity of the claims, or whether remains were buried there from another location, depending of course on whether the investigations are carried out by an independent and neutral body of experts. The other problem lies with the organizations that have supplied the witnesses to the event. Human Rights Watch is relying on evidence and witnesses largely provided by the diaspora-based National Front for the Salvation of Libya, with ties to Britain and the US. Further, a search on the internet fails to bring up a clear list of the names of detainees said to be killed in Abu Salim.

But if a comparison were to made with other regimes, even just in the region of North Africa, it would be clear that the human rights record would be as bad or worse in states like Eypyt and Tunisia, with which the US had long standing, uninterrupted ties. As with Libya, where the rebel commander Abdul Hakim Belhaj had been sent by Britain’s MI6 to be tortured, Egypt had also been used as a site for ‘renditions’ making it clear that the US ‘renditioning’ of individuals to these cooperative governments was not a new occurrence. Libya, however, was a special case, requiring the immediate intervention of the US and certain European powers.

Oil Capture

According to the Belgian journalist, Michel Collon, western European countries’ reliance on Libyan oil means fierce competition in securing supplies. Above all others, it was Italy, Libya’s former colonizer, that held the top position in terms of an oil relationship, while also relying heavily on Libya for its oil supplies. Italy would intervene militarily on the side of the rebels early on, sending its own aircraft carrier off the Libyan coast. But France, with twice the national debt of Italy, would also view Libya as important, maybe not in the sense of supplying its own internal market, since France relies heavily on nuclear power for its energy needs, but as part of its own investment strategy in providing oil to other countries. And in terms of geopolitics, France would want to take the lead in asserting itself in the Libyan conflict to reinvigorate its perceived role as a hegemonic European power over the region, which is the modern version of its historical colonizing presence in the Mahgreb. These motivations are reflected in France’s early, aggressive support of the rebels: France was the first country to actually begin aerial bombing of Gaddafi’s troops outside of Benghazi. It was the first in terms of pushing for UN Security Council Resolution; the first in pushing for regime change; the first in recognizing the NTC; and was there at the end, with the bombing of the convoy carrying the fleeing Gaddafi from Sirte.

Libya’s total oil production represents only some 2% of total world production, but the oil is of high quality in terms of its purity and lack of sulphur content, needing less refining on its way to becoming gasoline fuel. Libya’s location on the Mediterranean also puts it into close proximity to Europe, which means lower shipping costs to the receiving countries. The countries dependent on imports of high quality, ‘sweet crude’ Libyan oil include: Italy (22%), France (16%), Spain (13%), Ireland (23%), Austria (21%) and Portugal (11%).

The oil companies are going back in, with Repsol, Eni and Marathon at the front of the line, but the others also vying for strategic oil fields. Facilitated by the National US-Arab Chamber of Commerce, the Oasis Group, made up of the triad of ConocoPhilips, Marathon Oil and Hess, are re-entering Libya. They were there in 1955, gone after 1969 when Gaddafi partially nationalized the oil companies, but then back again in 1986 even with sanctions placed on the country, but more fully returning in 2005, producing most of Libya’s oil exports with 1.6 mbd [3]. But all of the oil companies previously in Libya before the civil war are returning with renewed vigor to post-Gaddafi Libya: Heritage Oil, BP, Total, OMV, with US companies Occidental, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron previously accounting for 30% of Libyan oil production, back in.

In terms of investments in oil production, the southern European countries of Italy and Spain and their respective oil companies of Eni and Repsol have been most visible in Libya. Italian oil companies (e.g.,Eni) have invested heavily in oil production in Libya, including in industrial infrastructural development, outpacing investments by other rival European states, until now, as the French and other rivals, including the United States, jockey for position in acquiring larger stakes in Libya’s oil industry.

For Libya, the European market will continue to be vitally important, with some 85% of its oil exports previously exported there, and with the overthrow of Gaddafi, the new government of Libya will undoubtedly give preference to those countries vying for oil contract bids that supported the rebels in the uprising [4]. In this regard, Turkey could also be a big winner in Libya in securing development contracts. But most importantly, with US involvement, the model of Iraq will most likely be followed in establishing some version of the ‘Declaration of Principles’ (signed by Bush and Al-Maliki on Nov. 26, 2007), where in the ‘economic sphere’ oil production is tied to ‘benchmarks’ of development along the road to full integration into international world markets, which will tend to mean western markets [5].

  2. “Exposed: the ‘abu salim prison massacre’ fraud”; empirestrikesblack, Martin Iqbal, 26/09/2011 and “1,200 Bodies Buried at Abu Salim Prison. Really?” The Libyan Civil War: Critical Views, 26/09/2011 and “Abu Salim: walls that talk”; The Guardian, Stuart Franklin, 30/09/2011
  3. “Western Companies See Prospects for Business in Libya”; New York Times, Scott Shane, 28/10/2011 and “U.S. oil companies, security contractors look at Libya”; The Institute for Southern Studies, 24/10/2011
  5. “A ‘Declaration of Principles'”, NPR, 24/01/2008 /
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This post was written by Daniel Robicheau

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