A Gaddafi Arrest Warrant Raises the Stakes in Libya

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Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

A woman supporter of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi holds up a picture of Gaddaattend a rally at the green square in Tripoli June 23, 2011.

Muammar Gaddafi faces a potential war crimes trial at The Hague after the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Monday issued arrest warrants for the Libyan leader, along with his son Saif al-Islam and his military intelligence chief General Abdullah al-Sanoussi. The warrants allege that all three men were involved in ordering security forces to open fire on unarmed protesters last February, turning a peaceful protest movement into a four-month civil war.

The arrest warrants turn the regime's top three figures into fugitives in all of the 150 countries that recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC. The Gaddafi warrant claims that he ordered his security forces to "deter and quell by all means the civilian demonstration against his regime," while his son Saif — who until last February was trumpeted by Western leaders as Libya's great reformist hope — is alleged to have managed the logistics of the crackdown, effectively acting as his father's Prime Minister. "His contributions were essential," the warrant says of the younger Gaddafi, adding that he was "the most influential person with [Muammar Gaddafi's] inner circle, and as such, he exercised control of crucial parts of the state apparatus". U.N. investigators believe hundreds of civilians were killed in Benghazi, Misratah, Tripoli and other cities during the second half of February, when security forces fired live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators.

Gaddafi is only the second sitting head of state (after Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir) to be indicted by the ICC since it began operating in 2003. And in theory, the crimes are serious enough to land the Gaddafis and their intelligence chief in prison for the rest of their lives.

In reality, however, the three men are already living as fugitives. Hunkered down in Tripoli, their movements have been drastically curtailed since NATO jets began bombing the capital in mid-March. Until then, Gaddafi retained a swaggering defiance against the rebels and their Western supporters, appearing atop the ramparts of Tripoli's Red Castle fortress and delivering thundering pep talks on television, vowing to crush his foes. Now, weeks pass without any sign of Gaddafi, who has said he believes NATO forces aim to kill him.

As the NATO air campaign drags into its fourth month, Gaddafi has endured the deepest crisis of his 41-year rule far longer than NATO officials had expected. Still, there are signs that some within Gaddafi's top ranks are scrambling for a political exit. Three government ministers held talks with foreign envoys on the Tunisian island of Djerba over the weekend, according to a brief picture of the talks shown on Gaddafi's state-run television. Gaddafi's envoy to Algeria met with Algerian officials on Monday to discuss the crisis, while African leaders met in South Africa's capital Pretoria to discuss options to end the war.

It remains unclear whether the ICC warrants will speed an end to the war by accelerating the breakup of the regime, through the isolation of the Gaddafis, or will deepen its defiance by cutting off lines of retreat. Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim on Monday shrugged off the arrest warrants, saying, "The ICC has no legitimacy whatsoever. We will deal with it."

Under the international court's rules, the Libyan regime is now responsible for rounding up the men and sending them to The Hague for trial. "One does not need to be a law professor to understand the unlikely scenario of the Libyan authorities to act on this," says Richard Dicker, Human Rights Watch's international justice program director, who has monitored the International Criminal Court since its inauguration.

Despite billions in funding, the court has failed to convict a single defendant in its eight-year history. Its arrest warrant against Sudan's President Bashir was issued in March, 2009; more than two years later, the Sudanese leader is still in power and even traveling internationally — albeit only to countries that do not recognize the ICC — and officials in The Hague have appeared powerless to bring him to justice. When people are brought to court, trials can drag on for years.

With no foreign forces in Tripoli, arresting the Libyan leader and his son could require a cataclysmic split in the regime. Many military commanders and politicians have defected since February, but they have fled the capital to the rebel side, rather than moving against Gaddafi and his inner circle in Tripoli itself.

If NATO finally orders in ground forces — which it has, until now, vowed not to do — those forces could be obligated to arrest the three men should they be captured by countries that recognize the ICC. (The U.S. does not recognize the court.) And if Gaddafi finally agrees to exile, he is now barred from going to any country which has ratified the ICC. There are still plenty of destinations which would welcome him, however, including Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Angola and North Korea. And, says Dicker, "He could live in suburban Washington D.C., since the U.S. would have no obligation to arrest him."