Comment: UN raises stakes in Libya

The Security Council's actions against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya have implications beyond the conflict itself and may signal a return of faith in collective security, writes international law expert Chris Michaelson.

Libya UN inside

Dr Chris Michaelsen, Director of the UN Sanctions Project and Senior Research Fellow at the Faculty of Law, says the Security Council's decision to act in Libya could have repercussions far beyond North Africa.

After intense diplomatic arm twisting, France and Britain persuaded the United Nations Security Council in the early hours of Friday morning to authorise tough measures against Colonel Gaddafi and his armed forces, which were closing in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

The French and British efforts were arguably aided by the chilling warning of the Libyan dictator himself, who had told the residents of Benghazi on national television that his troops were "coming tonight" and that "there will be no mercy".

UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) establishes a no-fly zone for the entire Libyan air-space, toughens the already existing arms embargo by calling on all UN member states to "inspect in their territory vessels and aircraft bound to or from Libya", and widens asset freeze to include Libyan Investment Authority, Central Bank of Libya and Libyan National Oil Company, among others.

Most importantly, the resolution authorises UN member states to "take all necessary measures" to "protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack".

The "all necessary measures" terminology closely resembles the formulation used in Resolution 660 (1990), which authorised collective military action to repel Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait in 1990-91.

Legal commentators agree that this wording generally legitimises every form of military force by the international community. On the other hand, Resolution 1973 makes it explicitly clear that the deployment of ground troops or occupation force is excluded, at least at the moment.

However, Friday's resolution goes beyond the mere establishment of a no -fly zone. It provides the legal basis for comprehensive air-combat missions, as well as the use of drones and missiles.

For this reason, five members of the Security Council abstained in the voting. Russia and China, which often oppose the use of force against a sovereign country as they believe it sets a dangerous precedent, expressed serious concerns about aggressive UN measures but ultimately refrained from using their power of veto.

Similarly, Germany, Brazil and India abstained, warning that military intervention could harm civilians more than help them.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, for instance, repeatedly made clear that "we don't want to get sucked into a war in North Africa".

Behind such statements lies the fear of escalation and a drawn-out military conflict.

While Resolution 1973 constitutes the logical next step by the Security Council, its implementation faces serious practical challenges. In particular, it is unclear whether the use of air power alone will halt and repel Gaddafi's forces. After all, as Professor Hugh White has pointed out, this is exactly what NATO air forces were trying to do against Serbian ground forces in Kosovo in 1999, with very little success.

Practical challenges notwithstanding, the Security Council's decision has significant implications that go far beyond the conflict in Libya. The resolution marks the first time since the Gulf War of 1991 that the Security Council has authorised large-scale collective military intervention. It did not do so to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994, or to authorise NATO's intervention in Kosovo. Similarly, the Council did not approve the establishment of no-fly zones in Iraq in the late 1990s, in spite of the deteriorating humanitarian situation with the Iraqi Kurds.

This time, however, it appears that humanitarian considerations did play a pivotal role in building support for a positive Security Council vote.

This was also facilitated by the express political support for military action by the majority of states of the Arab League.

Most importantly, perhaps, the Security Council's decision to act in Libya may signal the return of international faith in the collective security mechanisms of the UN, which many had declared dead in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It is too early to determine whether the Libyan example will reinvigorate international efforts to deal with other conflicts though multinational cooperation.

Much will depend on how Resolution 1973 will be implemented on the ground.

The Australian government, however, deserves credit for being among the first to call for decisive action by the international community, including a UN mandated no-fly zone. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, in particular, was extremely active in promoting the message that something had to be done. These efforts have now paid off. And they may bolster Australia's campaign for a Security Council seat in 2013-14, too.

This article originally appeared in the Canberra Times newspaper.

UNSW Media contact: Steve Offner | 02 9385 8107