What's It Take for the UN to Allow a No-Fly Zone Over Libya?

Unless Muammar Gaddafi unleashes a major bombing campaign against civilians, the United States and Britain are not expected to ask for UN authorization for a no-fly zone over Libya.

Despite moving quickly to impose punitive measures, diplomats say that the only way reluctant UN Security Council members might agree to military action is if the Arab League approves. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already called this move "superfluous."

China's UN Ambassador, Li Baodong, this month's Security Council president, on Wednesday emphasized the need for diplomacy, respect for Libya's territorial integrity and resolving the crisis peacefully. But he left the door open for further action by saying Beijing would "heed and respect the opinions and positions of Arab countries and African countries."

Iraq? Kosovo?

True, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC there were "occasions in the past when such a no-fly zone has had clear, legal, international justification even without a Security Council resolution." This was in Iraq and in Kosovo.

But bringing up the circuitous interpretations of Iraq resolutions would not carry much weight. (Since the 2003 US invasion, Russia has insisted that major Security Council resolutions carry a prohibition of military action.) NATO did intervene in Kosovo but justified it as a European venture under its charter.

So this time it is highly unlikely, despite contingency plans, that the United States or the United Kingdom would unilaterally initiate a no-fly zone without a UN Security Council go-ahead. To date nothing of the sort has been proposed, with wary diplomats quoting US Defense Secretary Robert Gates who told a Congressional committee:

"Let's just call a spade a spade: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That's the way you do a no-fly zone. It's a big operation in a big country."

And yet...yet, corridor talk among envoys say this could all change if the Libyan Air Force inflicted heavy casualties on civilians. There were reports that the regime had bombed rebels in the oil refinery town of Brega, although details were not clear yet.

The Arab League spoke out against foreign intervention but then said it would consider enforcing a no-fly zone in coordination with the African Union. "The Arab League will not stand with its hands tied while the blood of the brotherly Libyan people is spilt," its secretary-general, Amr Moussa of Egypt, said.

Sanctions adopted

In the Security Council, members imposed sanctions swiftly on Saturday, a contrast to the usual slow pace of the 15-nation body, whose decisions are mandatory on all UN members.

Again, a key factor was the tough stand of the Arab League. Another was that Libya's tearful UN ambassador and its deputy ambassador had denounced the Tripoli regime and asked for action. The measures included travel and financial sanctions on the Gaddafi family and cohorts and an arms embargo. (see text)

The British-drafted resolution also called for the International Criminal Court to investigate those responsible for the crackdown on anti-regime protestors, a move that might influence some officials around Gaddafi there was still time to bail out or face a global black list.

The Council asked the ICC prosecutor for an initial report in April and periodic reports after that. That's a good thing too. When the Council referred the Darfur killings to the ICC in 2005, Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, took nearly two years to issue his first arrest warrants, throwing out research done by a UN human rights probe.

As it did on Sudan, the United States wrote in a clause excluding prosecution of a national (such as an American) whose government had not ratified the ICC (like the US), should he or she participate in a UN authorized operation in Libya.

Suspension from Human Rights Council

Then on Tuesday, the 192-nation General Assembly suspended Libya from the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, again showing that Gaddafi had lost nearly all friends. Venezuela (which wants to initiate peace talks), Cuba and Nicaragua objected to the action as a US-instigated plot. Bolivia joined them but said it supported the resolution.

But Costa Rica's ambassador, Eduardo Ulibarri, questioned why Libya had been elected to the Council in the first place as it did not just become "a voracious repressive machine during the last weeks." (Libya was elected on a non-competitive slate from a regional group)

US Ambassador Susan E. Rice was blunter than usual:

"When the only way a leader can cling to power is by grossly and systematically violating his own people's human rights, he has lost any legitimacy to rule. He must go, and he must go now."

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is dire with about 180,000 people amassing at the Egyptian and Tunisian borders, most of them migrant workers from Africa or Asia whose countries could not mount a rescue operation as Western nations have done. They were attacked by Gaddafi supporters and robbed of their meager belongings. And some rebels did the same, wrongly accusing them of being mercenaries.

"We are planning for a three-month emergency operation that will help shore up Egyptian and Tunisian food safety nets," World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran said in Tunisia near the Libyan border. But the UN refugee agency said a large number of Africans were not allowed into Tunisia. In short, there is food if they can cross the border.

No one can visualize the end. Gaddafi shows no signs of stepping down and seems to plan for a Valhalla in a me-or-the-country mantra. On Wednesday, he warned he would "fight until the last man and woman". In a nearly three-hour televised speech, he also said that thousands of Libyans would die if Western forces intervened.

So it is no wonder Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration was far from making a decision on a no-fly zone and Virginia Senator Jim Webb, warned of "the unpredictability of history" and revolutions that go off course.

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