As politicians in Western capitals were taking quiet pleasure in the capture and killing of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi yesterday, opinions elsewhere were divided.
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the Geneva Conventions had been breached with the killing of Colonel Gaddafi.
“We have to lean on facts and international laws,” Mr Lavrov said. “They say that a captured participant of an armed conflict should be treated in a certain way. And in any case, a prisoner of war should not be killed.”
Back in the old days, war was simple: the victors took everything, usually killed the losing leaders, and that was that. (The Romans went through a triumph both to rub their victory in everyone’s face and to bolster the political position of the victorious general.) With World War II, things supposedly changed. The victorious Allies put German and Japanese leaders on trial for war crimes and meted out justice after some kind of due process. The best known example of this were the Nuremberg Trials. To some extent the process was artificial, but it gave the idea that there was a rule of law internationally and that leaders were responsible to adhere to it. That’s supposedly been the way it is ever since.
Until now. Gaddafi’s death, and Osama bin Laden’s for that matter, along with the numerous examples of death from the sky ordered by the current Occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, have put us back in the “old days.” Not many people (in the West at least) think these people are heroes, but in short-cutting the process Barack Obama (and his colleagues in Libya, whose conquest is largely at the initiative of the French) have begun the process of undermining any legitimacy international law might have.
The end result of this for dissenters in this world will be the old Chinese model. You rebelled with one of two results: either you won and became the Son of Heaven, or you lost and were executed and added to the roll call of bandits in Chinese history. We’re not as far from that model as we’d like to think. When our Founding Fathers stated they pledged their life, fortunes and sacred honour, they weren’t kidding: the British were as brutal as anyone in dealing with rebellion, as the Canadians found out in the following century.
There are those on both the right and the left who are disturbed by the lack of legal backing for these killings. And then there are those who only care for the results. It’s going to be a different world under the “new” (really old) rules. Are you prepared for the change?