Libyan crisis provokes unprecedented global action

libya_mapAn important global precedent was set as, for the first time in history, the international community collectively decided to use legitimate force to stop a leader from committing mass atrocities against his own people, writes HANY BESADA.

Unlike other uprisings in neighbouring countries, Libya descended into civil war earlier this year as forces loyal to President Muammar Gaddafi, attacked civilians demonstrating against his regime. With tanks, armed forces, naval vessels and artillery unleashing firepower on urban centres, the rebels appealed for international intervention to prevent a possible genocide situation. As calls for protection of the Libyan population increased, the UN Security Council invoked the responsibility to protect; the Arab League asked the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone; and the African Union suspended Libyan membership.

Many of the actions taken by the international community in response to the Libyan crisis are unprecedented. The UN Security Council, in particular, reacted decisively, unlike in some other cases in the past. Firstly, invoking resolution 1970, the UN affirmed Libyas responsibility to protect (R2P) its civilian population and referred the case to the International Criminal Court.

This marked the first time that the Security Council unanimously approved such action. The Court itself acted swiftly as well, opening investigations just a week later, and less than three months later issuing an arrest warrant for Gaddafi, his son, and brother-in-law. A few weeks after resolution 1970, resolution 1973 was passed, in which the Security Council explicitly called on the international community to act.

For the first time in history, the international community, led by three members of the Security Council, collectively decided to use legitimate force to stop a leader from committing mass atrocities against his own people. R2P proponents pointed to regional backing of the no-fly zone by organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, stressing its international legitimacy.

However, critics indicated that R2P was being used for political and not purely humanitarian purposes. As governments in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain turn violent against civilians and peaceful protesters, they are increasingly questioning the selective use of R2P for what NATO has called limited humanitarian intervention and not war, in Libya.

Critics argue that both Bahrain and Yemen have traditionally been close US allies and Western powers have refrained from taking stronger action as a result. In Bahrains case, action against the Sunni Monarchy would result in the strengthening of the Shiite majority and shift the balance of power in the region towards Iran something that the US would be concerned about.

As the intervention, headed by the United States and the UK, takes its course, discussions are underway regarding the reason for the international communitys involvement. While, in terms of the responsibility to protect principle, the intervention seems to be on solid ground from a humanitarian perspective, it is hard to ignore the fact that Libya is rich in oil. In recent weeks, Gaddafi invited Chinese, Russian and Indian firms to extract its oil in a bid to replace Western companies that fled the unrest and violence.

While the Gaddafi regime has never been a favourite of the West, Obama, along with other Western leaders, is explicitly stating that the goal of the intervention is solely to protect civilians, and not to ensure a regime change. However, emerging powers and, more in particular, China, Russia, India and Brazil, have reservations about military intervention in Libya and accused the West of harbouring ulterior motives in removing Gaddafi from power. And, in the meantime, Arabs have cause to be deeply suspicious of Western military meddling.

Putting motives and suspicions over Western intervention in Libya aside, a wide range of options has now become available, since the international community clearly failed in its responsibility to prevent systematic massacres in the first place. Arms embargoes, no-fly zones and targeted sanctions against members of the government in Tripoli were necessary, but they have been largely insufficient in deterring the Libyan leader. The recent arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, while boasting the unanimous backing of the Security Council, may not have the desired effects. Libya is not a signatory to the Court, which means Gaddafi is unlikely to be apprehended in his home state.

The crisis constitutes a clear threat, not only to the Libyan nation, but also to regional peace and stability. The violence has created a massive humanitarian crisis, displacing hundreds of thousands of foreign workers and Libyans alike. Failure to develop an effective response to halt these events would render the R2P doctrine ineffective and undermine the credibility of the United Nations.

The international communitys decision to intervene in Libya in a bid to save innocent lives, even with military means, has to be applauded. The legal authority to authorize military intervention was rightly sought and secured, which further legitimized the process. However, ill-advised action or the lack of a concrete plan of action and mishandling of the situation, could turn the moral imperative of intervention and its widespread support on its head.

Now the issue is whether the short and simple intervention, pictured by the international actors, would help or hinder a peaceful conclusion to the war. While there is no question that the violence against the population by Gaddafis forces had to be stopped, the UN-endorsed involvement seems to be only the first of many steps that will be required for the country to heal. Whether the responsibility to protect civilians from immediate danger will translate into a country prepared for peaceful change, or one that is even more distraught than it was before, remains yet to be seen. – Hany Besada is Programme Head and Senior Researcher at the North-South Institute (NSI) in Ottawa.

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