It was an undignified and horrific end, but many would argue it was what Gaddafi deserved. He had led the oil-rich Libya as an autocrat for almost 42 years, quashing all opposition with frequent brutality and funding international terrorism. As Libya had become swept up in the Arab Spring, Gaddafi lashed out, labeling his enemies "rats" and killing and injuring thousands of his own people.
Gaddafi's death was a landmark, but three years later, it cannot be convincingly called a good one. On Oct. 20, 2014, Libya is as much of a mess as ever. In a confusing, chaotic situation, fighting is split among Arab nationalists, Islamists, regional militias and more. Recently, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have intervened militarily, while the country's largely impotent government-in-exile was forced to hold its meetings onboard a car ferry.
Given such a situation, its not unreasonable to wonder what might have happened if Gaddafi hadn't died. Mary Fitzgerald, an Irish journalist based in Libya, raised this question on Twitter on Monday. "Three years ago today Gaddafi died a gruesome death," she wrote. "Many Libyans say they would have preferred to see him face justice in a courtroom."
It's an important question, not just for Libya, but also for the region, and even the wider concept of international law.
Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, is quick to point out that such an outcome had been possible: While NATO did intervene in Libya, it did not intend for Gaddafi to die, and there were hopes that another country might be willing to take him in as an exile (none were).
Just a few months before Gaddafi's death, the International Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant against him for alleged crimes against humanity, a decision praised at the time by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The Libyan government refused to countenance the charges, calling the ICC a "a tool of the Western world to prosecute leaders in the Third World," and some analysts suggested it may have furthered Gaddafi's decision to hold on to power.
Ultimately, it didn't really matter. "In the end, he was killed by his own citizens," Chivvis says, "not surprisingly given how he had ruled them."
It's certainly possible that if Gaddafi had faced trial, be it in the ICC or elsewhere, Libya may have had a chance at peace and reconciliation after the bloody end of his regime. It could have been a vital state-building exercise for a country that had existed for more than four decades under Gaddafi's highly personalized, sometimes eccentric style of governance. Given the incredibly fractured nature of Libya today, some wonder whether a Gaddafi trial could have offered something to unite the disparate forces in the country. But it's hard to say for sure, and other, less desirable outcomes were also possible.
"A high-profile trial in a post-conflict environment can be an opportunity for societal reckoning and healing," Tamara Cofman Wittes, director and senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, says in an e-mail, "but can also just add to grievance and polarization, depending on the local context and also on how well the trial itself is handled."
Wittes points to the problems in the trial of Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late dictator. Libya's interim government began its trial against Seif earlier this year, but it has been criticized by a number of international actors for how it has handled the case: Human Rights Watch has accused the Libyan government of failing to provide adequate legal representation to the defendants in the case, for example.
And while the ICC charged Seif along with his father in 2011, it has been unable to compel the Libyan government to allow it access -- just one of many challenges to the ICC's legitimacy in recent years. “It is hurting it,” John Jones, Saif’s British lawyer, told Time Magazine last year. “It makes the ICC look spineless and toothless.”
"Morally desirable though it is, a trial will be a gigantic, theatrical distraction that will not strengthen those who want [disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration] of militias early on," Richard Dalton, an Associate Fellow at London's Chatham House, explains. "It could even give heart to the rump who think the old regime can return and thus bring an even earlier end to the relative tranquility of the period from late 2011 to mid 2013."
Ultimately, Libya's state today is about more than one man, and many feel that the Western governments who were eager to get Gaddafi out failed to help Libya stabilize after his death. "Would Libya be better today if [Gaddafi] were still alive? Probably not," Chivvis says. "But the real issue is why the international community, after a seven-month air campaign, neglected post-conflict reconstruction."
"When Qaddafi died, Libya actually had, by the standards of most post-conflict states, pretty good chances of making a smooth transition to peace and stability," Chivvis explains. "It had wealth, was near Europe, had neighbors who were headed in the same direction, and it's people had not, unlike Bosnia, for example, fought against each other in internecine civil war."
He adds, "This is what is so tragic about the situation today."