Libya at UN: A Bridge Too Far

The UN Security Council condemned the violence in Libya, deplored the regime's crackdown and said those responsible for killing some 300 people should be held accountable -- a sign that Colonel Moammar Gadhafi has few friends.

The Council, the most powerful UN body, was silent during the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, with Russia, China and others objecting to any interference in internal affairs. (Among UN officials, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke often as did Navi Pillay, the human rights commissioner.)

But apparently Libya was a bridge too far.

In a 365-word statement to the press, read by this month's Council president, Brazilian Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, the 15-member body "condemned the violence and use of force against civilians, deplored the repression against peaceful demonstrators...and called for an immediate end to the violence." (see text)

The to-ing and fro-ing before the statement was completed was nearly an all-day project (before and after a session with East Timor's independence hero, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão). Russia, diplomats said, objected to any reference for an investigation, as rights commissioner Pillay proposed. But British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters that "no doubt" the Council would be meeting again to review further measures "in the light of events."

Oil keeps Gadhafi alive
But short of an embargo on Libya's oil revenues, many analysts believe there is little the Council or anyone else could do to convince Gadhafi to step down unless his generals revolt. Europeans, especially Italy, depend on Libyan oil. World prices soared to a 2 ½ year high and the Dow Jones Industrial Index dropped because of the chaos in Libya.

Any sanctions, since the US invasion of Iraq, face a difficult time in the Security Council. Actions by the United States and Europeans on oil and the use of technology to make sure Libyans get information, are more realistic.

The drafting of the Council's statement went through several phases. It was strengthened after the Arab League suspended Libya and its secretary-general Amr Moussa of Egypt, issued a critical statement. "We could hardly do less," said one Council envoy.

Libyan envoy calls it genocide
But the Council meeting was not called by its president but by the deputy ambassador of Libya, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who lashed out at Gadhafi. He told reporters that he received information on Tuesday that attacks were mounting in the west of the country.

"Certainly the people have no arms and I think the genocide started now in Libya," he said. "I think the Gadhafi statement was a code for his collaborators to start the genocide against the Libyan people."

His ambassador, Mohammed Shalgham, who described himself as a friend of Gadhafi, spoke to Security Council members at a closed session, saying that reforms were needed and he regretted the loss of life, diplomats reported.

But he denied - as Libyan officials have done -- that aircraft fired on protestors. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed "outrage" at reports of war planes and helicopters firing on demonstrators.

Had the Libyan ambassador objected to his deputy's request for a Council meeting, Germany's ambassador Peter Wittig said he would have done so. And so would have Britain and France. "The scale of violence by the Libyan security forces against peaceful demonstrators is really shocking," Wittig said.

In addition to the United Nations, diplomats at Libyan embassies in the United States, the Arab League, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Poland, India and Bangladesh, among others, have either resigned from their posts, or disavowed links to Gadhafi's government.

Estimates from human rights groups put the death toll at about 300 people, many in eastern regions, which are now controlled by the opposition in the sparsely-populated country of 6.4 million people. The Sahara desert covers roughly 90% of Libya's 700,000 square mile area.

A call to kill?
Gadhafi in a speech early on Tuesday said enemies of Libya would be executed. He blamed the unrest on "cowards and traitors" seeking to humiliate Libyans. He also referred to protestors as cockroaches or rats or mercenaries who had been given drink and drugs. Television showed him shouting and banging his fist on the table during his 70-minute rant that reminded many of his 2009 General Assembly speech.

He urged young people to come to the "defense of the revolution" and "cleanse Libya house by house" in what sounded like a scorched earth policy of me-or-no-one.

Gadhafi's rambling has been adopted by his son, Seif al-Islam, who was considered sophisticated and the conduit for foreign oil companies. On Monday he spoke of constitutional reforms but then warned that "rivers of blood" would flow if the protests did not stop.

Anyone who has been in power for 42 years cannot be dimwitted. The late king of Morocco, Hassan II, was once quoted as saying of Gadhafi: "Il est fou mais il n'est pas stupide" (He is mad but he is not stupid). So are his statements to be taken seriously or is he demented?

Said Robert Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, writing in Time magazine about a conversation with a Libyan source:

"Pressed, my Libyan source acknowledged Gaddafi is a desperate, irrational man, and his threats to turn Libya into another Somalia at this point may be mostly bluffing. On the other hand, if Gaddafi in fact enjoys the loyalty of troops he thinks he has, he very well could take Libya to the brink of civil war, if not over."