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AU Joins in Condemning Use of Force in Libya

Libyan residents gather near the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya, February 23, 2011

Libyan residents gather near the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya, February 23, 2011

Africa's highest security body has added its voice to the international chorus condemning the use of lethal force against demonstrators in Libya. The African Union Peace and Security Council chose its words carefully in dealing with an insurrection against one of the AU's most influential leaders.

"It was awful." That was how one African diplomat described Wednesday's closed-door Peace and Security Council debate on Libya. The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, spoke of heated exchanges as Libya's ambassador defended his government's use of deadly force against demonstrators demanding an end to Moammar Gadhafi's 41-year rule.

The Libyan representative left without speaking to reporters. The 15-member council then debated three hours before releasing a brief communiqué.

A day earlier, a U.N. Security Council statement condemned Libyan authorities for using deadly force. It said those responsible should to be held to account.

The Arab League suspended Libya's membership. The organization's Secretary-General Amr Moussa was quoted as speaking of Arab anger about the use of mercenaries, live ammunition and heavy weapons against civilians in Libya.

The AU Council was more careful in affixing blame for the violence shown on television screens around the world. The Council chairman for February, Namibia's AU Ambassador Kakena Nangula, described the statement to reporters.

"[The] council strongly deplored the unfortunate tragic loss of life of the people of Libya, and urged all people, all those concerned to exercise restraint in order to avoid any further loss of life and or destruction of property," said Nangula.

The final version of the Council communiqué sent to VOA used a slightly stronger formulation, "strongly condemn[ing] the indiscriminate use of force."

Ambassador Nangula expressed concern that much of the news about the public uprising in Libya is coming from media reports. She said the Council would dispatch a fact-finding team to Libya, partly to look into discrepancies between official death tolls and estimates reported by news agencies.

"His excellency ambassador of Libya informed council of 270 deaths," added Nangula. "That includes civilians, military and everybody else, and that is part of the reason why the information we are getting is not quite sufficient. We are not quite satisfied. We want to go there for and find out the information on the ground itself."

Several AU diplomats are urging strong action against the Libyan government's action. Zachary Muburi-Muita, head of the United Nations mission to the African Union, says 21st century African leaders must know they can no longer crush dissent with impunity.

"In decades past, I'm talking about impunity here, you could get away with whatever because you are minister, you are a general, you are the president of your country," noted Muburi-Muita. "[In] the 21st century [it] is no longer permissible, acceptable, that you can do anything to your population just because you are at the leadership position."

AU diplomats and bureaucrats say the cautious Peace and Security Council statement reflects the African Union's discomfort at criticizing one of its wealthiest and most outspoken leaders. Moammar Gadhafi served as AU chairman in 2009, and was a forceful advocate of creating a United States of Africa, patterned after the European Union. Despite Mr. Gadhafi's urging, the plan remains in limbo.

Libya is among five nations that contribute nearly two-thirds of the membership dues in the 53-state organization. He is also said to provide financial aid to poorer African countries in return for their support in AU affairs.