BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA: When I arrived in Libya in March 1994 as a middle-ranking diplomat, the country was under UN sanctions related to the 1988 Lockerbie disaster. No flights to and from Libya were permitted; we had to take a rickety Libyan ferry from Malta to Tripoli for an overnight journey of around twelve hours in the Mediterranean Sea. By any standards, Libya was a “hardship” posting.

But we soon discovered that Libyans had adapted to the hardships in their own ways. The sanctions had affected them, but the state had an extensive socio-economic safety net which reduced their harsh impact. For example, all Libyans were provided free education, healthcare, housing, electricity, subsidized food, and interest-free loans. As a result, Libya had the highest standard of living in Africa; it also had the highest Human Development Index (HDI), life expectancy, and lowest infant mortality in the continent. Law and order in the country was as good as any in Africa.

Of course, the situation was not completely normal. If someone became seriously ill, he or she was in trouble. Sophisticated medical facilities and some medications were not available in the country. Preventable deaths due to illness and accidents were common. Col.Muammar Gaddafi ran a police state in which the intelligence agencies were all-powerful. Arbitrary arrests and detention were not uncommon. But that was no different from the situation in many Western-backed dictatorships, all over the world.

In fact, during my stay of over three years in Libya, economic liberalization in the country accelerated and the role of the state in the economy diminished. More than sixty countries had their embassies in Tripoli, and dozens of large multinational companies, including several from India, were operating in Libya. There were no restrictions on women, who wore Western clothes, worked in various sectors including the government, and drove cars, unlike, say, in Saudi Arabia, a Western satellite. And there were no terrorists in the country.

Unfortunately, Libya is a failed state today, not because of anything that gaddafi did, but because of the greed, treachery, deceit, and lies of certain Western countries and their allies in the Gulf. They include the US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar.

Libya’s troubles began in early 2011, when these countries decided to get rid of Gaddafi, in the wake of the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia in Dec. 2010. The prime movers behind regime change in Libya were France (under Sarkozy) and Britain, helped by the US, which was “leading from behind!” The instrument they used to do so was NATO, though several members [like Germany] refused to take part in its illegal operations. These states successfully duped the UN Security Council into adopting a resolution to enforce a “No Fly Zone” (NFZ) over Libya on the [false] pretext that Gaddafi’s forces were on the brink of committing a massacre of Libyans in Benghazi.

The above has been confirmed by the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which stated in a report issued on Sept. 12, 2016, that David Cameron was “ultimately responsible” for the collapse of Libya and the rise of ISIS. It said that the results of the Western intervention were “political and economic collapse, tribal warfare, refugee crisis, and the rise of the Islamic State.” The Committee’s Chairman said: “The UK’s actions in Libya were part of an ill-conceived intervention, the results of which are still playing out today. Other political options were available.”

The reasons behind the regime change were twofold—Libya’s vast reserves of oil and gas; and Gaddafi’s refusal to become a Western puppet. In fact, Gaddafi had been a thorn in the flesh of the West ever since he came to power in a coup in 1969. He quickly closed down the US military base in the country and nationalized Libya’s oil industry which, until then, was mainly benefiting Western oil companies. He went on to offer support to many anti-colonial movements including the IRA, which naturally did not endear him to the West.

Sarkozy wanted French oil companies to have a greater share of Libyan oil. He also did not approve of Gaddafi’s idea of an African “Gold Dinar,” backed by gold, which could undermine France’s economic influence in its former colonies in West Africa. Britain and the US wanted a regime change in the country to install their own puppet.

But after almost a decade of UN sanctions Gaddafi had mellowed, and made his peace with the West by paying $1.5 billion to the Lockerbie families in Nov. 2008 and giving up his missile and nuclear program, in which the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan was involved. Western leaders like Tony Blair and Condoleeza Rice visited him in Libya, and he was received by Sarkozy in Paris and Berlusconi in Rome. In fact, as reported by the Guardian of UK, he gave Sarkozy Euro 50 million for his election campaign in 2007. Gaddafi thought his rehabilitation with the West was complete.

Unfortunately, that was not correct. The West had not taken him off its hit list; it was only looking for a suitable opportunity. And that came in the form of the “Arab Spring” [which turned out to be an Arab Winter] in 2011.

In early 2011, Western intelligence agencies and special forces began fomenting unrest in eastern Libya, around Benghazi, using some Islamist groups. When Gaddafi sent his security forces from Tripoli to deal with them, France, Britain, and the US claimed that a massacre of innocent civilians was imminent, and obtained a UNSC resolution to enforce an NFZ over Libya. There is no evidence, whatsoever, that Gaddafi’s forces were going to do any such thing, but the West had obtained its fig leaf from the UN to intervene in Libya.

Russia, China, and India, however, abstained from voting for the resolution as they suspected Western intentions. Their suspicions turned out to be correct. After learning this bitter lesson, Russia and China vetoed all Western resolutions in the UNSC to intervene in Syria.

NATO bombing of Libya began within 48 hours after the adoption of the resolution on March 17, 2011, though Gaddafi had announced that he was stopping all military operations. The African Union was on the verge of sending a delegation to Tripoli to find a diplomatic solution to the “unrest” in Libya. But France, Britain, and the US had no time for such niceties; they had already decided that Gaddafi had to go. Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama, and Hillary Clinton were primarily responsible for the illegal attack on Gaddafi and Libya.

Except that they did not expect that it would take seven months of heavy bombing to get rid of him. Thousands of innocent Libyans were killed, and the civilian infrastructure was extensively damaged, including hospitals and schools. By any standards, the West and its allies committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya with impunity; these were the same countries that claim to be the defenders and upholders of “human rights” and “morality” in the world!

On Oct 20, 2011, Gaddafi was chased and brutally murdered by a mob, while fleeing his hometown of Sirte, in an operation in which NATO warplanes played a major role. His body was desecrated and kept for public display in an industrial freezer for a couple of days, after which it was buried in an unmarked grave in the Libyan desert. NATO ended its bombing of Libya as soon as Gaddafi was killed, further confirming that its real objective was his elimination.

There were also credible reports that Gaddafi had been shot by a French commando to prevent exposure of his links with Sarkozy. Hillary Clinton, one of the chief architects of the Libya operation, gloated on television, saying, “we came, we saw, he died.” The murder of Gaddafi and the destruction of Libya was a war crime for which many should be tried and punished but will never be, given the current realities of international politics.

In an op-ed in the Financial Times on Aug. 22 2011, Richard Haass, President of the US Council on Foreign Relations and a major establishment figure, wrote: “The ‘humanitarian’ intervention [in Libya] introduced to save lives believed to be threatened was, in fact, a political intervention introduced to bring about regime change. Now NATO has to deal with its own success.” Such is Western hubris; Haass didn’t think it necessary even to maintain the fig-leaf of “humanitarian intervention,” which was the stated ground on which the UNSC resolution had been obtained.

Before the NATO attack, Libya had overseas financial assets worth over $150 billion, and one of the largest sovereign investment funds, the Libyan Investment Authority, which held shares in many well-known multinationals such as BP, GE, ENI, Siemens, and Vodafone. It also had a very large foreign workforce, including Indian workers and professionals.

In the five years since Gaddafi’s murder, Libya has gone through several political, economic, and military convulsions. The present position is that there are three “governments” in the country.

The first is based in the eastern city of Tobruk and controls the Libyan army led by “General” Khalifa Haftar, a CIA asset who lived in the US for almost 20 years before being brought to Libya in 2011 to lead the forces opposed to Gaddafi. His troops now control most of Libya’s oil terminals.

The Tobruk government is supported by the Western countries as also by Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. But in Nov. 2014, Libya’s Supreme Court, based in Tripoli, ruled that the Tobruk Parliament’s election was “unconstitutional.”

The second, called the General National Congress (GNC), is an Islamist outfit which controls western Libya and is based in Tripoli. It is backed by “Libya Dawn,” a coalition of armed groups, which is opposed to the Tobruk government. In Dec. 2013, the GNC decreed Sharia as the source of all legislation in Libya. It also imposed gender segregation and compulsory Hijab for women. The GNC is supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Sudan, as well as by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The third is the UN-backed “Government of National Accord” (GNA), which is not acceptable to either the Tobruk or the Tripoli “governments,” and operates mostly from exile in Tunisia and Morocco. It came into existence in Dec. 2015, and tried to assume power in Tripoli in March 2016, but was not successful. In Aug. 2016, the Tobruk Parliament voted to adopt a motion of no-confidence against it.

Today, Libya is a patchwork of city-states and regions controlled by armed militias, warlords, city councils, and tribal networks. Crime is rampant as law and order in the country has broken down. Libya’s oil exports have declined by around ninety percent, and the economy is in ruins, leading to widespread destitution. More than 5000 people have been killed in clashes between various militias, and almost half a million people have been made homeless.

One-third of the population of Libya has fled to Tunisia. Libya’s cumulative GDP losses since 2011 are estimated at $200 billion. In June 2016 a UN official told the Security Council that around 435,000 civilians had taken shelter in schools and other public buildings. The humanitarian situation in the country is alarming.

Several terrorist groups including ISIS and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb have established a significant presence in the country. There are around 2000 armed militias in Libya, often fighting with each other. Special forces of the US, UK, France, and Italy, are also operating in the country, with agendas of their own. There are two rival central banks. The Tobruk government wants to dislodge the GNC regime. But for doing so, it will have to fight a war with Tripoli, which it is presently not in a position to do.

Libya has become a haven for human trafficking, with thousands of refugees being smuggled to Italy in rickety boats. Several thousand of them have drowned in the Mediterranian sea while attempting to escape from the country. Large quantities of weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenal have found their way to Mali, Niger, and the Central African Republic, creating instability in those countries. Libyan arms and fighters have also flowed to Syria through Turkey in large numbers.

Neighbouring countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria have closed their borders with Libya. Most countries, including India, have closed their embassies in the country and evacuated their nationals due to safety concerns.

This is Libya today, a far cry from the country I lived in about twenty years ago. What was Gaddafi’s fault, for which he was killed, and the country destroyed by the US, UK, France, and NATO? That he was not a puppet of the West? What was the fault of the Libyan people? They had not harmed anyone.

Five years after Gaddafi’s murder the country is fragmented and in a state of chaos. It is unlikely to return to normalcy for many, many years. Despite vast natural resources, its citizens are facing hunger, poverty, and destitution. And, so far, none of those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity have been punished. Nor will they ever be.

(Ambassador Niraj Srivastava is retired from the Indian Foreign Service)

(Cover Photograph: Hafez al assad and Gaddafi with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat )