Surprisingly, the often lethargic UN Security Council approved force against Libya in a race against time to prevent the forces of Col. Muammar Gaddafi from crushing the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
France, one of the key movers behind the resolution, indicated aircraft would move out of Europe soon. Said Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, who flew to New York for the vote: "Our country is completely involved to stop the attacks of the Gaddafi regime against civilian populations, especially on Benghazi. It's a question of days and maybe of hours. We should not arrive too late."
How Benghazi, Libya's second largest city in the northeast of the country, will remain in rebel hands without boots on the ground is uncertain. The resolution (see text) prohibits "foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." And since the opposition can't throw stones, no one is sure how weapons will reach them. (There were unconfirmed reports Egypt was sending them some arms.)
Still, television footage showed loud cheering and fireworks in Benghazi at the Security Council's vote late on Thursday, New York time. "It is a clear message to the Libyan people that they are not alone, that the international community is with them," said Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy UN ambassador who broke with the Gaddafi regime.
As Britain's UN Ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant noted, Gaddafi's forces were preparing for a violent assault on Benghazi, a city of 1 million people. "We have also seen reports today of a grotesque offer of amnesty -- this from a regime which has advertised its determination to continue persecuting and killing those Libyans who want only to take control of their own future."
Lebanon, the Security Council's only Arab member, introduced the first draft of the resolution, endorsed by the Arab League, which Council members were eager to keep from the press (so see early text here.) France and Britain then joined the lobbying with the United States coming around later.
Use of force and oil
Specifically, the resolution demands Gaddafi implement an immediate ceasefire, a Russian proposal that Moscow hoped would be a resolution on its own, without a no-fly zone.
On the military front, the resolution imposes a no-fly zone that bans all aircraft from Libyan airspace except for humanitarian flights or the evacuation of foreigners. It authorizes member states to take "all necessary measures" (the diplomatic language for the use of force) to protect civilians and civilian populations in areas under threat of attack.
The measure also allows states to inspect cargo of aircraft and vessels suspected of transporting arms or mercenaries. If permission is denied, states can use force to carry out inspections. And it widens the list of people and entities - including the Libyan Central Bank and the country's national oil corporation - subject to an asset freeze.
Council splits but no one blocks resolution
The resolution barely scraped through with 10 votes, one more than required in the 15-nation Security Council. Voting in favor, in addition to Lebanon, Britain, France and the United States, were Nigeria, South Africa, Gabon, Portugal, Colombia and Bosnia.
There were no votes against and five abstentions. Lobbying by the United States and others prevented veto-wielding members, such as Russia and China, from casting a negative vote and killing the measure. Instead they abstained along with Brazil, Germany and India.
Germany has maintained a pacifist attitude towards most, though not all, conflicts since World War II, including the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Its U.N. ambassador, Peter Wittig, told the Council:
"Decisions on the use of military force are always extremely difficult to take...We see great risks. The likelihood of large-scale loss of life should not be underestimated...We should not enter a military confrontation on the optimistic assumption that quick results with few casualties will be achieved."
US Toughens Resolution
The Obama administration, which was extremely reluctant to enter a war in a third Muslim country, postponed negotiating on the measure but then toughened the resolution, believing that it was too late for just a no-fly zone.
As predicted in an earlier report on the Security Council, no resolution would have been introduced without the support of the 22-nation Arab League as well as the advance of forces loyal to Gaddafi.
Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Russia and China have been careful to ensure the wording of a resolution could not be used as a basis for another intervention. Therefore the strong measures invoked in this resolution, number 1973, were surprising in the Council, which has been slow to respond to atrocities in the Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire) and even in Sudan.
But the response to the Libyan uprising seems to have less to do with Iraq than guilt over Bosnia or Rwanda where the world stood by or waited too long as genocide and massacres unfolded.
"Today, the Security Council has responded to the Libyan people's cry for help," Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said. "Col. Gaddafi and those who still stand by him continue to grossly and systematically abuse the most fundamental of the human rights of Libya's people."