First, get him out of Libya

June 28, 2011

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AT LEAST in the abstract, the International Criminal Court served the cause of justice by issuing an arrest warrant yesterday for Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy. But the warrant has come at the wrong time. If it prevents Khadafy from striking a deal that grants him safe exile abroad, the arrest warrant could cost more lives than it saves.

In issuing warrants against Khadafy, his son Seif al-Islam, and their intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, the court accused them of crimes against humanity, including the murder and persecution of civilian demonstrators. These crimes are well worthy of punishment, but keeping him from committing further atrocities against Libya’s people is the most urgent priority.

Proponents of issuing the warrant now argue that there is no point in delaying, because Khadafy and his son Seif have vowed to stay in Libya and fight to the bitter end. But the Khadafys’ blood-curdling vows shouldn’t be taken at face value. Father and son have a powerful incentive to make strident public statements that discourage members of their regime from defecting — while still trying to cut a deal for themselves behind the scenes. It’s an encouraging sign that, according to Tunisia’s state news agency, three of Khadafy’s ministers are in Tunisia conducting talks with “several foreign parties’’ about sending the dictator into exile.

The ICC is not supposed to let political or tactical considerations enter into its decisions about whom to indict. But if granting Khadafy safe passage out of the country could shorten Libya’s civil war by weeks or months, saving many lives, calling for his arrest only after he had fled Libya would have been the wiser move.