'Our Son Of A Bitch' - How Italy Got In So Deep With Gaddafi

'Our Son Of A Bitch' - How Italy Got In So Deep With Gaddafi

Analysis: the violent crackdown in Libya exposes decades of Rome playing ball with a dictator, the sort of economic-driven Western realpolitik that must end.


The bloodbath that is going on right now in our backyard is not an occasion for scoring political points on the home front. For starters, Italy's relations with Muammar Gaddafi have been a bipartisan affair for decades, a shared policy in its substance if not the form of the (ridiculous and humiliating) last visit to Rome of the "mad dog of the Middle East," to use Ronald Reagan's old definition of the Libyan leader that is particularly pertinent today. The only voice of dissent with respect to this pro-Gaddafi approach has come from the center-right Northern League, which criticized the increased stake of Libyan capital in Italian banking group Unicredit.

Our country of course has a very clear and present stake in the future of Libya. This is a very different case from that of Afghanistan, where Italy has tried to preserve its credibility in NATO through the fight against terrorism. This is about about energy security, oil prices, shares of major banks and companies here and Italian citizens who work there. Libya is now an integral part of our economic system, as one can read plainly on the Milan Stock Exchange.

The bloody chaos of Libya is also setting the stage for a new wave of immigration to Italy's shores. Bilateral agreements, often forged under blackmail threats of the Libyan leader to relax controls along his country's coastline, may very quickly come undone.

The current predicament reveals another even more disturbing truth: in the relationship with Gaddafi, Italy was the weaker partner. In theory, we could have hoped that Gaddafi was to Rome what Tunisia's Ben Ali was to Paris, or Hosni Mubarak to Washington: "our son of a bitch," to borrow the famous phrase attributed to Franklin Roosevelt when explaining American support of the then Nicaragua dictator Anastasio Somoza. But in truth, Italy has never been able to exercise real influence over Gaddafi. We convinced Europe and an often doubtful United States that we could somehow guarantee the reliability of that most unreliable North African Colonel. We could not. And maybe we never really tried. But it is precisely this perception - as well as striking the wrong first notes amid Rome's embarrassment in front of the explosion of repression – which explains international irritation against Italy.

And so Gaddafi's tragic showdown becomes a wider defeat for a foreign policy vision that has spanned the political spectrum. It is rooted in the national DNA and reflects the idea that economic interests can be defended regardless of the conditions or consequences, or the foreign counterpart. Because, it was always said, whoever has the oil (over there) has to sell it, and whoever invests (over here) has to make a living.

That may be the case. But while future scenarios for Libya remain very difficult to predict – ranging from a civil war to a split in the country, with the secession of Cyrenaica in the east - it would make sense to start acknowledging that economic ties also involve political relationships. We must start questioning the limits of a realpolitik that no longer stands up against the test of time or the people's desire for freedom. It is also crucial to ask whether we can continue to entrust Italy's energy security to regimes that may eventually face violent internal crises. If time is running out on Middle Eastern autocracies, it is possible that large Asian autocracies are also less "sustainable" than was hitherto thought.

The lesson of Libya, for Italy, is a hard and costly one. It's a human tragedy for six million people to whom we owe the responsibilities of colonial history. It is a political defeat for the whole of our country, no matter what happens. But it is also an opportunity for a shared and deep rethinking of national security in a time when economic interests, energy dependence and migration control must be reconciled with the protection of more open and fairer societies. Before it's too late, on both shores of the Mediterranean.

Read the original article in Italian

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!