UN resolution 1973 authorizes states to take all necessary measures[i] to protect Libya’s civilian population, but given that “all necessary measures”
is essentially UN-ese for military force, the one absolutely essential measure
needed to protect civilians in the long run, diplomacy, is largely ignored.
To its credit, the African Union (AU) has deployed diplomats to develop a basic political road map for easing the Libyan crisis. It remains the only concrete proposal for a political settlement.[ii] Resolution 1973 acknowledged the AU’s Peace and Security Council’s “aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution” (operative paragraph 2), but the coalition of military forces now in Libya has yet to pay serious heed to the AU.
The Chair of the AU Commission, Jean Ping, tried again, at the May 5 meeting of the International Contact group on Libya, to get a serious diplomatic effort under way. He told the coalition that both the deteriorating situation in Libya and the acknowledged need for a “political solution to the present crisis” require the international community to “fully
mobilize itself to facilitate the speedy conclusion of a ceasefire, as required by the Security Council” [operative paragraph 1 of Resolution 1973 “demands the immediate establishment of a cease-fire”].
The details of the AU’s roadmap have not been disclosed and will generate debate, but they rest on three important principles articulated by Amb. Ping:
- recognize the “legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people to democracy, political reform and good governance;”
- “respect…international legality” and act strictly within the limits of the UN Security Council mandate; and
- Work toward a ceasefire accompanied by an “international verification and monitoring mechanism.”[iii]
The urgent need for a ceasefire is obvious. The fighting between the rebels and the Gadhafi forces is stalemated. Neither side has the capacity to prevail, but in the meantime the Libyan death toll may now have to be counted in the tens of thousands,[iv] according
to the US Ambassador to Libya. The physical protection of civilians in the midst of ongoing armed conflict, and by air forces alone, is an extraordinarily difficult challenge. Preventing the massed army of Col. Moammar Gadhafi from invading the city of Benghazi back in mid-March was manageable from the air, but preventing the shelling and siege of Misrata from dispersed locations is proving to be impossible.
As the US chairman of the joint chiefs of staffs, Admiral Mike Mullen, pointed out, after the Gadhafi forces were exposed to aerial attacks they adopted the same tactics used by the opposition forces – discarding their uniforms and blending in with the civilian population, using civilian vehicles, staging attacks from residential areas, and so on.[v]
Coalition and rebel forces continue to hope for a collapse of the Gadhafi regime, and critics of the military operations complain that while international forces have become involved in a Libyan civil war, they are not willing to devote the firepower needed for success. Indeed, it is probably only a matter of time before calls for a Libyan surge are heard. But
the reality, amply demonstrated in Afghanistan, is that external forces have very limited utility and cannot determine outcomes in civil conflicts by sheer force.
That there are clear limits to the utility of force is a lesson that those with all the firepower are slow and reluctant to learn, but the call for diplomacy is not to argue that there is no place for UN-mandated military intervention. As wary as one must be of military intervention, in the short-term the aerial bombardment of Libyan forces by the international coalition helped to save civilian lives. It is also the case that without an
international military intervention a diplomatic roadmap would not now be on the table – the opposition forces now under the National Transitional Council would have been long suppressed by the Gadhafi regime and denied a seat at any table had the promised assault on Benghazi not been stopped.
But international military forces are demonstrably unable to protect the people of Misrata, much less promise safety to Libyans in the long-term. That depends on serious attention to a diplomatic track – to political accommodation in pursuit of a ceasefire and a credible process toward a government that will reflect Libyan society and provide guarantees for future popular participation and dissent that does not spawn the kind of repression that the Gadhafi regime has visited on Libyan cohorts of the “Arab spring.”
It is a point made persuasively by the American academic and former State Department official, Anne-Marie Slaughter. [vi] The objectives of peace and stability and of improving the lives of individuals in Libya as elsewhere, she argues, must ultimately be met by social and political means, and that in turn highlights the need for a negotiated solution. The US goal, says Slaughter, “should not only be to have Gadhafi leave office, but also to support as broad a spectrum of Libyans as possible in making a transition to, in [President Obama’s] words, ‘a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people.’ We should not try to engineer a government that will support us in Gadhafi’s stead, or fight to the finish to burnish US credibility and power.”
The more killing and destruction the current fighting produces, she says, “the longer and harder it will be for Libyans to rebuild the economic and social ties that can support development and a healthy political process….Let us protect Libya’s civilians by any means necessary, but let us at the same time support any effort to stop the conflict on whatever
terms both sides will ultimately accept.”
It brings to mind Christopher Hitchens’ compelling point that the international community should stop worrying about an “exit strategy” and focus instead on an “entrance strategy.”[vii] Hitchens meant a more direct military strategy to directly pursue Col. Gadhafi, but the more urgent requirement is to gain entrance for a credible diplomatic
initiative to take advantage of, rather than lament, the current stalemated[viii] military situation.
There is a lot riding on the struggle to win civility and safety in Libya. The well-being of Libyans is the crucial imperative, but the fate of other populations facing attacks by their governments will also be affected. Thomas Weiss, a Professor of International Studies at the City University of New York and a prominent proponent of the international community’s obligation to come to the aid the world’s most vulnerable, offers this warning: “If the Libyan intervention [diplomatic, humanitarian, and military] goes well,
it will put teeth in the fledgling responsibility to protect doctrine; and if the Libya intervention goes badly, it will redouble international opposition and make future decisions more difficult.”[ix]
[i] A core element of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (17 March 2011)
“Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting
nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in
cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures,
notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and
civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,
including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on
any part of Libyan territory….” http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/268/39/PDF/N1126839.pdf?OpenElement.
[ii] “AU says its roadmap only proposal for settling Libyan crisis,” Xinhua News
Agency, 07 May 2011. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2011-05/08/c_13863980.htm.
[iii] Statement of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Jean Ping, at
the meeting of the International Contact Group on Libya in Rome, Italy, 5 May
[iv] The US Ambassador to Libya told reporters in Washington recently that
“estimates of the dead range from 10,000 to 30,000. “Death toll rising,”
sidebar, CBC News, 28 April 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/04/27/libya-apr27.html.
[v] Paul Koring, “Allies urge Obama to step up Libyan war effort, The Globe and
Mail, 24 April 2011.
[vi] Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Interests vis. Values? Misunderstanding Obama’s Libya
Strategy,” The New York Review of Books,
[viii] The US Chairman of the joint chiefs of staffs, Admiral Mike Mullen, is among
those who refer to an emerging stalemate in Libya. Paul Koring, “Allies urge
Obama to step up Libyan war effort, The
Globe and Mail, 24 April 2011.
[ix] Thomas G. Weiss, “The UN has proved its worth in Libya and Ivory Coast,” The Independent, 6 April 2011. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/thomas-g-weiss-the-un-has-proved-its-worth-in-libya-and-ivory-coast-2263655.html.