The crisis in Libya presents a much greater challenge to the European Union’s past failures towards the Arab world compared with revolutions against previous so-called friendly regimes in Tunis and Cairo.
The European Parliament’s emergency debate on the crisis later today is likely to see a strong welcome for the EU’s visa ban, asset freeze and other sanctions against Gaddafi and his cronies.
Strasbourg may well back the argument to impose a no-fly zone, although emphasising the United Nations ‘Responsibility to Protect’, rather than any suggestion of European military ambition.
There will be a traditional left-right battle on the mounting refugee disaster. Senior ministers in the Berlusconi government have already deliberately sought to whip up fears of unchecked immigration “of biblical proportions”, and negotiations on a common position between EU governments broke up in disagreement.
In contrast, Socialists recognise that refugees are fleeing murder and bloodshed, in which Europe’s humanitarian obligations must be paramount.
But the unanswered question in relation to European action to ban arms exports or support Gaddafi’s referral to the International Criminal Court – for which David Cameron and William Hague seek credit – is: why now, not before?
The European Union’s code of conduct on arms sales was always meant to prevent exports of any weaponry which could be used for internal repression, while few people would suggest that Gaddafi’s crimes against humanity began only three weeks ago.
Libya has suffered a brutal military dictatorship for 42 years, and the regime has failed to account for numerous abuses including the killings of up to 1,200 prisoners in June 1996 in Abu Salim Prison. There is a historic litany of suffering laid out by Amnesty International in its submission to Libya’s Human Rights Council Universal Period Review in 2010 including arbitrary detention; torture; enforced disappearances; extrajudicial executions; and deaths in custody as a result of torture or other abuses.
One of only eight countries in the United Nations with no contractual relations with the European Union, for two years the EU has been happily negotiating a framework agreement, paying only lip service to the continuing violations of human rights.
Without the popular uprising in Libya, such an agreement was due to be completed by the end of this year, with Europe’s energy and border control interests the barely concealed priority on the European Union side.
Libya shows that the European Union has almost completely failed to use its trade and diplomatic muscle, in a way which gives any practical support to those who seek to advocate democracy and human rights in countries where these are most under threat.
The priority now is to send a strong and consistent message to the people of Libya that the international community stands by their democratic aspirations, that we stand ready to uphold our own responsibilities to protect innocent civilians at risk and that we will be open in providing humanitarian assistance whether within Libya’s borders or within our own.
But the priority for the future is to make democracy-building and respect for human rights a central part of the EU’s political relations with our international partners. And to make direct budget support to governments and trade concessions conditional on genuine and measureable progress in meeting international norms.
Tough sanctions against departing dictators at a time of crisis looks good to European public opinion, but tough standards before a time of crisis look even better for the people we say we are trying to help.